Midsommar: A Stylish, Hellish Folk Horror Gem

Ari Aster’s Hereditary was the breakout horror film of 2018, bolstered by the stellar performance of Toni Collette as Annie, a grief-stricken parent dealing with the unraveling of her family as tragedy after tragedy unfolds. With Hereditary, Aster flirted with some elements of folk horror, namely occultism and the use of landscape. Midsommar, however, showcases the folk horror influences far more directly, namely the original Wicker Man and the extensive research on midsummer traditions that Aster did.  In some ways, Aster’s second film is more ambitious and unrestrained, especially in its cinematography. For months, the film has been hyped, to the point that director/writer Jordan Peele called it “atrociously disturbing” and a “masterpiece” in a conversation with Aster for Fangoria magazine. So, the question is, does Midsommar live up to the hype? The short answer is yes and no. At 2.5 hours long, Midsommar is a lot to unpack. It is a film that warrants repeat viewings for those who have the patience, and, like Hereditary, it is a film rooted in female trauma.

Aster has described Midsommar as a break-up movie that unravels into a folk horror nightmare. When trying to assess the film, that’s a good starting point. We’re essentially aligned with psychology grad student Dani (Florence Pugh) from the get-go, as she frantically emails her bi-polar sister and begs her to respond, fearing the worst. Early on, we’re also introduced to her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), whose friends encourage him to break up with Dani and accuse her of “abusing” him by demanding so much of his time. Not long after, Dani is orphaned in a visually jarring and disturbing scene that is one of many throughout the film. This narrative serves as the core plot line. Essentially, this is Dani’s story, and though there are other narrative threads and many pagans in white robes, the protagonist’s trauma is the real anchor. We’re with her each and every time she’s about to have a panic attack, be it in a cramped restroom on a plane or when she and Christian’s friends take mushrooms shortly after they arrive at a Swedish commune for midsummer celebrations.

In commenting on the relationship between Dani and Christian, Aster told The Hollywood Reporter that he aimed to “present a dynamic in which neither party is awful to the other one, but they’re absolutely wrong for each other. By virtue of the fact that we’re aligned very clearly with one character in the film, the other is immediately reduced to an antagonist.” It is true that Christian never specifically does anything horrible to Dani. He is callous and often distant, but he can’t really be accused of ill-intent. They are simply wrong for each and floundering in a stagnant relationship.

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Dani (Florence Pugh)

It’s unclear why Dani stays with Christian, but after losing her family, he’s all that she has left. The pagans sense this, specifically fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who leads the graduate students to the rural Swedish town where the nightmare unfolds. Pelle sees the pagans as a real family. He tells Dani that no one takes anything for themselves and they share everything.  In this context, he specifically is talking about Dani, especially since he’s sitting with her on a bed while his hand moves to her thigh. He tries to disrupt the monogamous relationship that she has with Christian and offers an alternative lifestyle.

In that sense, the film presents two very different lifestyles that are destined to clash. There is the lifestyle of Pelle’s ancestral cult the Hårga and the lifestyle of the Americans. One of the white-robed Hårga tells the grad students that what matters most is being in harmony with nature. The Hårga also do everything together, from raising babies to eating. In fact, some of the eeriest scenes involve everyone seated at long wooden tables, staring at each other, waiting and watching for one of the elders to unfold their napkin before everyone else does the same in harmony. The penetrating gazes of the Hårga are unnerving.

On the other hand, there is the lifestyle of the Americans, best exemplified by Mark (Will Poulter), who serves as comic relief but also exemplifies the worst aspects of western culture. He is rude and dismissive of the Hårga’s ancient traditions. At one point, he relieves himself on a massive tree viewed by the Hårga as  physical manifestation of their deceased ancestors. Additionally, the other friends, even Josh (William Harper Jackson), a grad student writing a thesis on midsummer traditions and history, are constantly pulling out their phones to snap photos.  Eventually, Christian, whose graduate work is rudderless, decides he too is going to write on the Hårga. However, he does this for his own benefit and doesn’t have the deep respect for the traditions that Josh has. That said, even Josh can’t put his phone away  and takes photos of sacred books, despite being told no by the elders. This conflict between modernity/western sensibilities and ancient ritual is one of the undercurrents of the film and folk horror in general.

Midsommar also contains interesting commentary on suicide and death. In one of the most gut-punching scenes, the friends witness the suicides of two elders, but the Hårga explain that it’s better to give back to the life cycle and not allow both the spirit and body to break down in old age. To the westerners, however, this concept is unfathomable. Suicide is always bad.

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The Hårga

Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski deserves major props for bringing Aster’s nightmare vision to life. Simply put, the visual are stunning, be it the sprawling mountainside or the blinding brightness of the constant daylight. At times, the film is disorienting to the viewer, especially in the way that it bends time, specifically when the friends are tripping and images blur together. Grass grows on Dani’s feet and hands, for instance. The film is worth seeing for the visuals alone, especially on the big screen.

It’s too soon yet to declare Midsommar a masterpiece of the genre, as Peele has already done. There needs to be some time and distance before any work of art can and should be given such a title. Aster’s sophomore release is wildly ambitious, and at times, as existential as Hereditary, while including a nice dash of dark humor.  At its core, though, it’s a film about two people who simply shouldn’t be together. This, coupled with Dani’s trauma and her desire to find a family, are what really drive the film. The visuals are a memorizing and fairy tale-like addition to the narrative.

Some resources on folk horror:

Mark Gatis’ History of Horror

Folkhorror.com

Hereditary as Folk Horror by Alexandra Hauke, published by Horror Homeroom

 

Apostle, Folk Horror, and Masculinity

Netflix’s continues adding to its ever-growing horror collection. One of its latest entries is Apostle, directed by Gareth Evans.  Several reviews have already compared the film to 1973’s The Wicker Man, since  both films are rooted in the folk horror subgenre, deal with religious fanaticism, and essentially build their own unsettling worlds, in each case a small, remote island. Yet, where Apostle breaks from some other films in the subgenre is in its critique of masculinity.

Apostle is set in 1905, and generally, little backstory is given to the island where the protagonist, Thomas (Dan Stevens), winds up in a quest to rescue his sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys). In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, we come to realize why Thomas has abandoned religion. He was tortured when he tried to introduce Christianity to Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. As Thomas is tormented before a burning cross, no God comes to his rescue. This is just one of the many scenes in which poor Thomas is put through the meat grinder.

The other men in the film, namely Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and later Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), use religion to keep the island’s inhabitants in line and to subjugate women. At one point, when Malcolm claims that Jennifer is a traitor, he parades her through the village in shackles and leaves her outside where children poke her with sticks and yank at her hair. The violence she suffers at the hands of men is only exacerbated as the film progresses.

These men also exercise strict and harsh control over women’s bodies. For example, Quinn cuts a baby out of his daughter’s womb and then uses a medieval torture device on her lover because he didn’t want them to be together and he certainly didn’t want his daughter to have the baby. Quinn is the film’s most pronounced example of ruthless, unchecked patriarchy, and his violence exceeds that of Malcolm’s.

The island, meanwhile, is inhabited by a goddess, and Malcolm claims to speak for her. He also feeds her animal and human blood, and yet, he can’t fathom why crops keep failing. The goddess, who seems to be nature personified, suffers because of the men who rule the island. They try to claim her for their own and tame her, but under their firm hand, any plant that starts to green soon withers and browns.

Apostle trailer:

 

Initially, Thomas is afraid of the goddess, and his first encounter with her is one of the most chilling images in the film. She is as decayed and creepy as the woman who inhabits room 237 in The Shining.  However, near the end of the film, he kneels to her and better understands her story, specifically that she isn’t so monstrous as he once assumed. Of all of the men in the film, Thomas has the most connection to the women. He comes to island because of  Jennifer, he forms a semi-romantic relationship with one of the islanders, Andrea (Lucy Boynton), and he eventually understands and sympathizes with the goddess. It should be noted, too, that both Jennifer and Andrea have their own agency, especially near the conclusion.

In the final shot, as Jennifer and Andrea escape the island via boat, Thomas and Malcolm, who evolves after witnessing Quinn’s brutality, sit together on a cliff as the women leave. New life finally grows, after Thomas and Malcolm’s blood has been spilled. There are a few ways to interpret this last scene. Maybe nothing grew on the island when the goddess was fed human blood because the island and its people were so tainted under Malcolm and then Quinn’s rule. Maybe new life grows because Thomas and eventually Malcolm transcend the negative aspects of masculinity with the help of women. Because of that, new life could flourish on the island, or maybe the cycle of life and death simply returns because the goddess is free, so to speak.

Apostle is a solid entry to the folk horror subgenre, especially for some of its critiques of masculinity. In that regard, it has some commonality to Dave Eggers’ 2015 film The Witch, which also has a menacing patriarchal figure, the father of a Puritan family who is so rooted in religious dogma and superstition that he suspects his eldest daughter is a witch as she comes of age sexually. Both films are awash in cool tones that establish the bleak atmosphere, especially as the crops fail and the violence heightens. The gore in Apostle is excessive at times, especially torture to animals, and the film could have been cut and edited slightly more, but overall, it is another noteworthy addition to this year’s already strong horror list.

Recommended: Check out this article over at Horror Homeroom about some other films that will help you better understand Apostle.