Välkommen till midsommar. Skal!
It’s the middle of the week, so here’s a film about the middle of summer. Midsommar continues this week’s look at holiday horror films. It creates a slow burn of dread and horrific consequences that really will stick with you.
The trailer for Midsommar shows a group of four friends going to a festival in Sweden. It looks like a cult group of some type, and shares similar vibes to The Wicker Man, when things start happening to the group. They’re not allowed to leave and start seeing strange things. The film is by the director of Hereditary which is a film that will mess you up, so I’m not exactly sure I’m ready for two and a half hours of Midsommar.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
After getting a cryptic email from her sister, Dani (Florence Pugh) gets word that she has committed suicide and killed their parents as well through carbon monoxide poisoning. This strains an already tenuous relationship with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Dani discovers that Christian and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter), have been invited by their mutual friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to visit his ancestral home in Sweden to observe a midsummer festival. Christian invites Dani out of pity, to the dislike of his friends, but Pelle convinces her it would be a good trip, and all five take off for Sweden.
The travellers arrive at their first stop in Hälsingland, a meeting place for all the young adults that have been travelling the world. They meet Pelle’s brother Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg) and his friends from London, Connie and Simon (Ellora Torchia & Archie Madekwe). They rest there for a day, all consuming psychedelics, which gives Dani terrors when someone mentions “family.” The next day the group hikes into the Hårga, a commune in the middle of nowhere. Pelle explains that while they have a festival every year, but this one is a special one occurring only once every 90 years, for nine days.
Josh uses this time to work on his thesis (as an anthropology student) while Christian forgets Dani’s birthday, only to be reminded by Pelle–who has already given Dani a drawing he made. The first night centers around two older members of the community who are honored at a dinner and allowed to use a sacred building for the night. The next day they are further honored at the meal, before being taken to a rocky precipice for an ättestupa–which is a sacred ceremony where the elders commit suicide by leaping off the cliff. The outsiders are horrified, especially Simon. The village elder Siv (Gunnel Fred) explains that life is a circle, and something that they are all happy to be a part of.
Josh is upset when Christian also expresses interest in writing his thesis on the Hårga. Meanwhile Pelle speaks to Dani and sows distrust between her and Christian, who is being followed by Pelle’s sister Maja (Isabelle Grill). Maja goes so far as to place a love totem under his bed. Mark urinates on the community’s sacred tree, unknowingly, and draws the ire of many a member, including Ulf (Henrik Norlén). Connie packs to leave in disgust over all she’s seen, but can’t find Simon. The villagers tell her that he left without her, which seems odd. Josh gets some information on the village’s book of scripture, the Rubi Radr, which is an evolving tome written by individuals that have been inbred (thus having unclouded thoughts). This information is contradicted in a story told to Christian.
Josh sneaks into the sacred room to take pictures of the Rubi Radr that night and is bludgeoned to death after seeing someone wearing Mark’s skin like a costume. Christian is given permission to have sex with Maja by the village elders, while Dani enters a festival activity with the women. They drink “tea” (which contains psychedelics) and compete in a dance around the maypole, spinning and twirling, until just one girl is left. Dani is that girl, and is crowned May Queen. Chris is tripping as well, having been given something. He follows a flower path to a sacred room where Maja lies naked awaiting him. She is surrounded by a dozen other naked female villagers who chant and sing as they have sex.
Dani returns from her May Queen duties of blessing the fields, and disobeys a request to ignore the festivities in a building. She observes Christian and Maja in their “fertility” ceremony, and breaks down crying. Christian finishes and runs naked out of the building, disoriented, seeing one of Josh’s legs sticking out of the garden, and finds Simon strung up and eviscerated in the chicken coop. He is captured and has a paralytic blown into his face. That evening the elders begin the final ceremony, presided over by the new May Queen, Dani. They need to sacrifice nine individuals to appease their gods. Four outsiders (which include Josh, Mark, Simon, and Connie) and four villagers (taken as volunteers) make the bulk of the sacrifices, but Dani gets to choose the last one; either a villager from their lottery or Christian. She chooses Christian who is sewn into a bear carcass and placed with the other bodies in a wooden temple which is set on fire. Dani watches in a dazed horror, but slowly begins to smirk and finally smile.
“On this, the day of our deity of reciprocity, we gather to give special thanks to our treasured Sun. As an offering for our Father, we will today surrender nine human lives.” – Siv
Midsommar is a great follow up after The Wicker Man. Both films center on outsiders entering into pagan communities with ill consequences. But where Sgt. Howie in The Wicker Man is antagonistic as an outsider in his community, the youth in Midsommar are invited in as guests, eager to experience the new culture. Both sets of protagonists are unfortunately targeted by these cults, as outsiders, for the blessings they can provide to the communities. And while Sgt. Howie fights to the bitter end, Dani gives up her anxiety and fear, and succumbs to the will of the group, supposedly joining them in the end.
I had high hopes for this film after watching director Ari Aster’s previous film Hereditary two years ago, and was not disappointed. Midsommar is a two-and-a-half hour slow burn of horrific and psychedelic events (or three hours, depending on the cut you watch). There are moments of shock, with a couple of edits that startle the viewer, but it has nothing like a classic horror film. There are a couple of horrific scenes with blood and minor amounts of gore, but the film doesn’t try to shock us with the viscera, as it is the elements surrounding that scene that are unsettling enough. In fact, the whole film is unsettling and just slowly works on the viewers sense of terror at being stuck in a situation that they are unable to escape.
The first of the big shocks happens within ten minutes, when the audience discovers what happened to Dani’s sister. The camera drifts languidly through a garage with two cars running to discover that they have hoses duct taped to the tailpipes leading inside the house. Following those, the next images are of the doors to the parents bedroom duct taped shut, with them lying peacefully in bed as the emergency worker checks their pulse. But the worst is yet to come as the camera, still moving at its plodding pace, follows the second hose into the sisters room and the audience sees it duct taped to her mouth. Aster is in no hurry to shock the audience and move the camera. He lets it linger on sequences for longer than normal, just to make sure that the weight of the situation takes its toll on the audience just as it does on the characters.
Another scene that is possibly more nerve wracking and unsettling is the ättestupa, which Pelle can’t explain properly to Dani and Christian in advance, and Josh just doesn’t want to. It precedes the entire scene with an air of questioning what is about to happen. Once the location is shown, with the cliffs and the rocks, and the community below and the two elders above, it quickly becomes clear what will happen. But again, the film takes a slow, and reverent time to get to the denouement, befitting the ceremony, but adding tension to the audience. And once the tribute jumps off the cliff, the camera mercilessly does not cut away, witnessing the characters full impact with the earth. The outsider characters in the film have the same reaction as the audience does, presumably, “this is f***ed!”
The audience knows what is happening to the characters and yet does not know at the same time. Connie is looking for Simon, and is told he went to the train station without her. That seems weird, she says, and the viewer thinks the same thing. But there’s always that little bit of doubt about it. Later when Christian finds Simon trussed up in the chicken coop, his back slit open and his lungs pulled out so he looks like a bird in flight, only then does the audience realize that everything has gone as far south as it can go! And things then still manage to get worse. Ari Aster takes no shortcuts and shows the final sacrifice in painful detail as Christian and two of the volunteers all burn to death.
In some sense it’s better (or perhaps easier) to watch a horror film with a killer running around chopping people up. It’s visceral and gets the blood pumping, but the horror is quickly dispersed when the film ends. For the most part, films like Jeepers Creepers or My Bloody Valentine have no intersection with reality, so they can be enjoyed in the dark of the theater, and then quickly fade with the end of the film. Midsommar however exists in an almost preternatural reality where everything is exact and realistic in its setup, that the horror feels much more actual, much like Bone Tomahawk, another recent film with a clash between cultures. It doesn’t have the tension build to a jump-scare, but instead sets the entire film on simmer, and lets the horror take it’s time to work deep inside the viewer.
- The film has no opening titles or credits, just a piece of artwork that cleverly tells the story–if you had time to look at it before the film starts.
- Eagle-eyed viewers will notice a number of foreshadowing elements including
- Christina seeing a piece of artwork with a burning bear, while waiting to see Siv
- Pelle teasing Christian about the Swedish women he can impregnate
- The children playing Skin the Fool, which is just what happens to Mark
- Florence Pugh was previously in the horror film Malevolent (2018), but may be better known for the 2019 version of Little Women, or her upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe film Black Widow.
- Both Jack Reynor and Will Poulter appeared together in Detroit (2017), with the latter also appearing in the Oscar winning The Revenant and the comedic We’re The Millers.
- William Jackson Harper is probably best known for his 5 seasons as the philosophical Chidi Anagonye on the TV series The Good Place.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.