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

 

Some Poetry for Halloween

Months ago, I announced that Moon Tide Press was putting out an anthology of poems inspired by horror films. Well, the anthology is out! It features 66 poets and has wicked cool cover art by Leslie White.

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If you’re interested in ordering a copy, you can do so through Moon Tide’s website here, or through Amazon here.

I have three pieces in the anthology, and as a little preview, here is one of the poems:

Imagining One More Romero Movie

 

I’d like to see Romero’s take on this moment,

a time as uncanny as the dead rising,

groaning, and slow-walking towards a meal.

The elite already live in towers,

like in Land of the Dead.

The president has a tower in NYC,

barricaded by police in all-black riot gear,

like the beginning of a movie

where everything is about to go wrong.

The working-class hustle below,

their hands hard and calloused, their clothes

rife with the smell of gasoline, oil, or dirt.

Sometimes, they crane their necks, stare

at those towers, maybe to imagine a gold nameplate,

a desk, leather chair, and air-conditioned office.

 

If Romero directed one more sequel,

I wonder where he’d place the survivors.

Shopping malls are too 1980s, but maybe Starbucks,

staring at their smartphones, plugging in

before the dead bust down the doors,

rip out espresso machines, gnaw on flesh,

or maybe he’d have a horde overtake DC,

while a few remaining politicians and lobbyists

flee down K Street under a harvest moon,

until the working-class, turned, drop the gas pumps,

hammers, or call center headsets and devour the living, fed up

with slumping and staggering from job to job.

 

Happy Halloween!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy October! Favorite Horror Podcasts

Happy October! Finally, the Halloween season has arrived. On the East Coast, the temperatures have dipped and pumpkin flavored food and drinks are ever-present. I write a lot about horror films on this blog, but I thought I would share a list of some of my favorite horror-themed podcasts. For the most part, all of these deal with the horror film, but they also touch upon Gothic and horror literature and other forms of media.

In the coming days, I’ll also share a list of some of my favorite horror films that are currently streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, just as I did last year. For now, here’s my list of horror podcasts I think you should check out.

Faculty of Horror: Hosted by Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West, Faculty of Horror is one of my favorite podcasts. Primarily, it looks at horror films through an academic lens, but the content is generally accessible, engaging, and interesting. The podcast has over 60 episodes, and all of them are achieved on the website.  Films covered include classics like Psycho and The Thing to more recent films such as Funny Games and The Witch. The show notes include a reading list, featuring the articles and books mentioned in the show.

Hellbent for Horror: This podcast is hosted by S.A. Bradley, a self-proclaimed “champion” of the horror genre in all of its forms. What makes this podcast unique is that Bradley typically picks a theme, such as the woods/nature, family relations/bad blood, religion, and applies it to various horror films. This podcast is less “academic” than some of the others on my list, but it includes a nice analysis of the genre. Some episodes feature interviews with authors, fans, and experts, thus giving space to other voices.  With over 70 episodes archived to date, there is a lot to listen to.

Horror Pod Class: I discovered this podcast recently, and it’s one of my favorites. It features two high school teachers talking about the genre as a whole. They’re knowledgeable and passionate. Show notes include titles of the articles/films/books discussed during each episode.

Final Girls Horrorcast: This podcast is really unique because it only features reviews of horror films available on streaming services. The reviewers, Aimee and Carly, are funny and offer interesting takes on some well-known and lesser-known genre films. This is a great podcast to check out when you’re looking for something to stream.

Inside the Exorcist: Hosted by Mark Ramsey, the dude who hosts LORE, “Inside the Exorcist” is a multi-part podcast that digs deep into the layered story behind The Exorcist. The first few episodes focus on the 1940s case of the Georgetown boy who was allegedly possessed and served as the inspiration for William Peter Blatty’s novel. The rest of the episodes focus on the stories behind the filming, including casting, and the cultural legacy of the film. This is one of the best behind-the-scenes accounts I’ve encountered on one of the most canonized films of the genre. Ramsey also created podcasts about Psycho and Jaws, so check those out as well.

Happy listening!

 

 

 

Review: The Devil’s Doorway

 

Typically, I’m not a fan of the demonic possession movie. At this point, a lot of the tropes are overplayed and it’s hard to do something unique with the subgenre. Paul Tremblay’s novel A Head Full of Ghosts is an exception that I’ll make, but the book is also hyper-aware of the subgenre’s history. That said, I do recommend  The Devil’s Doorway, a rather unnerving film released by IFC Midnight and directed by Aislinn Clarke.

Set in 1960 at a home for unwed mothers, the film follows two priests who have been sent there to document a “miracle,” a Virgin Mary statue that bleeds from its eyes. Echoing The Exorcist, the film has two priests who are on the opposite sides of the belief spectrum. The young Father John (Ciaran Flynn) is a true believer, while the older Father Thomas (Lalor Ruddy) is a skeptic and is even called a “Doubting Thomas” at one point by his counterpart. Father Thomas reminded me of The Exorcist’s Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who was not initially convinced that Regan (Linda Blair) was possessed by a demon until the film’s final act. Father Thomas does not believe that evil takes a supernatural form. Rather, he sees evil in everyday human actions

This is one of the most interesting concepts of the film. We see the “evil” Father Thomas speaks of play out as the film progresses. The nuns, especially Mother Superior (Helena Bereen), abuse the women, especially physically. Yet, there is little faith to be had in the institution of the Catholic Church to remedy the situation. Early in the film, Mother Superior tells the priests that the Church will merely hide the abuses that the priests witness. They’ll sweep it under the rug as they’ve done with other scandals. Father Thomas knows that she’s right, and it’s probably another reason why he’s simply there to do a job, to prove that there is some rational explanation for the bleeding Virgin Mary statute. He does want to report the abuses, but he knows that it will most likely be fruitless.

Once the priests meet Kathleen (Lauren Coe), a pregnant teenager who the nuns have shackled and banished to the basement, the scares really ramp up. Some of them are typical of demonic possession movies, including levitation, contorted bodies, and ancient languages spoken in a gravelly demonic voice, but because the film employs the found footage technique, some of the scares are unique. For instance, when Father John films some of the events and loses light or the camera cuts off and then on again, it allows for unsettling close-ups of Kathleen in full-blown demon mode. This is the only praise I will give the found footage technique because I think it has been overdone at this point. How many shaky camera shots can we take?

The introduction of Kathleen and the supernatural events that unfold, including exploding Virgin Mary statues, allows for the growth of Father Thomas’ character, which is again somewhat similar to Damien Karass’ character arc. It causes Father Thomas’ seemingly sturdy belief system to be shaken and questioned, which makes him more vulnerable and human. Yet, beyond the film’s supernatural elements, there is something to be said about the everyday evil that Father Thomas speaks of early in the film, the fact that these young women are abused and forced to spend hours upon hours scrubbing floors, washing sheets, or doing other remedial tasks instead of being allowed an education. Even more horrifying is the introduction of Kathleen, with cuts and lashes on her arms and shackles on her wrists. The nuns see the unwed, pregnant women as sinners, undeserving of mercy or compassion. This, indeed, is evil.

Overall, The Devil’s Doorway is a solid entry in the demonic posession subgenre. It addresses belief and skepticism in an intelligent way. Some of its images are generally creepy and haunting, and perhaps, most importantly, it uses the trope of demonic possession to address issues of gender and mortality.

The Devil’s Doorway is currently in theaters and VOD.

Side note: I encourage anyone interested in this film to read this interview with Aislinn Clarke in which she talks about the real “Magdalane Laundries” in Ireland that inspired this film. Pretty scary and eye-opening bit of history.

Some Thoughts on The Halloween Trailer

For horror fans, today’s the day. The new Halloween trailer has dropped.

There is quite a bit to digest in this nearly three minute trailer, but here are some of my general thoughts.

  • Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a badass. Much of the trailer shows Laurie Strode ready and eager to confront Michael Myers after her first encounter with him 40 years ago. She fires shotguns. She secures the house. She says, “I’ve been waiting for him.”‘
  • The film ignores all of the other Halloween movies, other than the original. This film is sort of a soft reboot, and it’s already been reported that it will be a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 film. At one point, a friend of Laurie’s granddaughter asks, “Wasn’t it her brother who murdered all of those babysitters?” The granddaughter counters, “No, that was something people made up.” So, there you have it. This film ignores the story-lines from all of the sequels, even the brother/sister story first introduced in Halloween II.
  • John Carpenter’s name is very present in the marketing. Early in the trailer, it is noted that the film was produced by John Carpenter. He also handled the score. It is likely they will continue to push and market his return to the franchise.
  • Several nods to the original. From the mental asylum story-line, to the scar on Laurie’s arm, to the closet scene at the end of the trailer, it is clear that this film will have  several nods to the original film.
  • Michael looks aged… but menacing. Just look at that mask! It is worn and tells its own story. Michael, meanwhile, looks hulking and menacing in every scene. It should be noted that Nick Castle, who played the original shape, has returned for this film.
  • Women, Laurie will face off with Michael again, but it’s clear her legacy/the plot of the first film will have a major impact on her daughter and granddaughter. At one point, her granddaughter says, “Everyone in my family turns into a nutcase during this time of year.” I hope this idea is explored, and I hope the other Strode women go toe to toe with the boogeyman.

So, there you have it. Our first glimpse at the new Halloween film is here. I am curious to what others think and what observations they may have. What are you expecting and hoping for with this film?