Ari Aster’s first film, Hereditary, had a trailer that was impossible to avoid for about six months leading up to its release. I must have seen it at least two dozen times. With every claim that it was the scariest movie to come along in decades, anticipation grew, and some degree of disappointment became more inevitable. It was the same thing that happened with It Follows. No matter how good the movie was (and Hereditary turned out to be even better than It Follows), there was just no way a first viewing could have lived up to all that hype.
The movie was beautifully made, with excellent performances and stunning, memorable imagery, but it had an uphill battle to actually scare anyone who had already been told so many times how scary it was going to be. The trauma and the evil at the core of it came through, though, and Aster immediately became one of the most promising new horror directors around.
His follow-up, Midsommar, had big shoes to fill, obviously. Would it be another triumph, or would it inevitably disappoint, if only to that degree of slight letdown after so much hype? As it turned out, it has certainly been a divisive movie, and most Hereditary fans seem to still hold that first film in higher regard, but for my money, this one was even better. The evil was still there, made all the more disconcerting by the bright daylight setting, and so was the trauma. The trauma was there almost from the very beginning, in fact, in a gorgeously haunting scene that, despite being positioned so close to the beginning of the movie, would be a shame to spoil here.
Suffice to say the protagonist, Dani (Florence Pugh), lost her whole family and was left with only her ambivalent boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), to comfort her. Christian was planning to break up with her, but under the circumstances could not bring himself to go through with it. Soon, to take her mind off her personal tragedy, Dani was off to a midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village with Christian and his friends, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Mark (Will Poulter). What none of them knew other than the Swedish Pelle, who was raised in the village, was the insular and gradually more terrifying cult-like nature of this community.
Along with trauma and evil, another strong element of both Hereditary and Midsommar was a sense of palpable dread hanging over everything, even before anything really bad had begun to happen. The brightly lit, beautiful exteriors of the village in the latter only added to this dread, reminding the viewer that daylight horror, when executed this effectively, is always more frightening than the expected shadows. As the car full of travelers passed over the invisible borderline into the village, the camera tilted upside-down, careening a full 360 degrees until it was upright again. The implication was clear: these five young people had crossed a turning point, and from here there would be no going back.
Aster proved himself to be a master of the effective shock moment with Hereditary, especially in its most unexpected and talked-about scene (if you have seen it, you know exactly the moment I mean). Midsommar had a similarly shocking scene at about the same point in its narrative, but instead of the short, sharp shock of the nasty jolt in Hereditary, this one was prolonged to hideous lengths. It was an endurance test of sorts for the audience and, in its own way, a point of no return no less rigid than the one unseen by its characters when they passed the border into the village. If you were not with the movie after this moment, it would have been best just to walk out before things got even worse.
There was more humor to this one than Hereditary, which had creepy and shocking moments that might have caused nervous laughter in some, but which could hardly be called a funny movie. The laughter to be found in Midsommar was largely of this variety as well, but it was more abundant and genuinely whimsical, even amidst all the horror and darkness. The most obvious cinematic influence was the 1973 classic The Wicker Man and, while Midsommar never quite reached the darkly comic tone that masterpiece managed to sustain, it was certainly a more worthy homage than the notorious remake starring Nicolas Cage.
Like The Wicker Man before it, a lot of the horror in this movie came from the deceptively cheerful tone of the ever-friendly cult at its center. This tone was matched by that of the film-making itself, creating a disturbingly seductive quality. Even when it became clear that something really sinister was happening, the sun kept shining and the faces kept smiling, and that was the most chilling thing of all.