(Some minor spoilers ahead)
The last time I sat down to watch a horror movie, I was five and seeing A Muppets Christmas Carol for the first time. Fifteen nightmare-fuelled years later, I was sitting down in the cinema to watch my first ever full-blown horror movie. In the opening minutes of Midsommar, I learned the one unspoken rule that every horror movie fan should either know or abide by: NEVER bring popcorn to a scary movie.
After his 2017 breakout film Hereditary was dubbed one of the most terrifying experiences of all time, rivalling classics like The Exorcist and The Shining, Ari Aster has returned with his newest creation, Midsommar. The story follows college student Dani (Florence Pugh), a tortured protagonist burdened by a toxic relationship and a heart-wrenching family tragedy. In an attempt to recuperate her tortured psyche, she joins her boyfriend on a visit to Sweden to attend a midsummer festival set in an idyllic pastoral commune. Three days of singing, flower crowns and suspicious mushrooms later, the movie descends into a terrifying waking dream that grips you tight and refuses to let you go.
I was expecting Midsommar to be full of jump-scares and loud noises and cheap tricks to make you shiver, then laugh off. How very wrong I was. The film is more interested in psychological horrors; the death of a loved one, the crippling power of grief and emotion, the need or dependence we feel for another person and the helplessness when that dependence is taken away. It’s horrible to watch Florence Pugh’s character struggle through this madness, but I was incredibly impressed by her performance. Like Toni Collette from Hereditary, the actress has to cycle through a wide range of emotional states, but she portrays each one so convincingly that nothing ever feels staged or contrived. Jack Reynor does a very good job as her unsatisfied boyfriend, and Will Poulter takes on the role of the hilarious comic relief with relish. Even at the height of the tension, the cinema broke into roars of laughter at his stupid stoner’s humour, adding a trippy exhilaration to the movie-going experience. As for the Swedish cult, well, let’s just say that the smiling gets even more sinister as the film goes on.
Over the course of the film, my popcorn stayed in my bag, untouched, as I let the sound design and musical score (composed by Bobby Krlic) lead me down a dark path of tension and terror. The film mixes haunting European folk music with long periods of silence or unsettling diegetic sound. Silence is key to the plot, as most of the cult members communicate through a secret language of emotion. While the costuming and set design is gorgeous to look at, captured through cinematography evocative of horror masters like Hitchcock and Kubrick, the attention to detail is the highlight of the movie. Every frame feels imbued with secrets, you may notice things just in the corner of your eye and think maybe I’m seeing things, it only looks like that flower is breathing, or that tree is looking at me. You have to pay attention while watching this movie and my eyes were glued to the screen, as the director secretly foreshadows the unfortunate fate of each character, creating a two-hour long sensation of unbridled dread.
My one criticism of the film is (surprisingly) the scares. While the film does include some well-placed gore and explicit imagery, it doesn’t go all out in making the film overtly supernatural, focusing on human horror instead. I feel the film could have gone a little further, been a little bloodier, a little more shocking. Also, The Shining and The Exorcist, and even Hereditary, had what could be called a climax. This movie feels a little disjointed, like you’re watching a series of separate moments, and then an ending.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe Midsommar isn’t meant to scare you in the traditional sense; maybe it’s more about the experience. An experience that traps you inside a bad drug trip and hits you with a psychological sledgehammering. Of course, fear is subjective and some people may not enjoy this film; they may prefer the thrills and chills of a jump-scare infused fright fest. But for those who want to feel really scared, I ask you, which is more likely to stick with you? A quick shot of blood and guts that makes you jump and exclaim? Or the unshakable remorse, disgust and secret relief you feel as you watch the last shred of sanity vanish from your protagonist’s smiling face in the last few seconds of this pastel coloured nightmare. I came out of Midsommar drained and shaken, but excited to learn more about whatever upcoming project Ari Aster is working on next (because surely it can’t be scarier than The Muppets).
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Words by Rachel Denham-White