Writer/director Ari Aster experienced a roller coaster of feedback after the release of his first feature film Hereditary.
At Sundance it was heralded as the scariest movie in years, but horror fans were surprised to find that it wasn't the typical gory slasher film. That reaction led defenders to include Hereditary in the category of "elevated horror." Now that "elevated horror" is a firmly established buzzword, not to mention the brand of horror A24 is well-known for, perhaps everyone will know what to expect from Aster's follow-up film, Midsommar.
Dani (Florence Pugh) suffers a family tragedy, and her emotionally distraught state leads her to become dependent on her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). All of Christian's friends advise him to break it off, but instead he invites Dani on their summer trip to Sweden at Pelle's (Vilhelm Blomgren) remote commune, Harga.
Dani (Florence Pugh, left) is having a bad trip in every sense. Photo by Gabor Kotschy, Courtesy of A24
Aster builds up the Americans' arrival and the commune's anticipation for the Attestupan ceremony, a momentous occasion they only have every 90 years. Bros like Mark (Will Poulter) mock their traditions, while we see hints of weirdness, like a woman trimming her bikini area and focus on her bleeding.
So the Americans are actually surprised when the Hargan ceremony eventually turns deadly, while we just wait for Dani and friends to realize exactly what they've gotten themselves into. Like Hostel, this film starts out as a romp before turning terrifying.
Once you witness the Attestupan, you can never unsee it. Gabor Kotschy / A24
Indiana Jones' Temple of Doom's got nothing on the Attestupan in Midsommar. Aster lingers on gory shots, too, and not just once: He cuts back to the bloody aftermath and even creates dreamlike montages of carnage.
At this point, sensible audiences will think, "Why don't the Americans just leave?" Well, some try to. This isn't Harga's first rodeo, so they know how to deal with outsiders who witness their Attestupan. Christian and Josh (William Jackson Harper) are writing a thesis about the commune, so they use that to justify staying, and Dani is stuck with Christian. The shocking ceremony seems to only make the festival more enticing for Mark.
There is a sort of devilish fun to these ugly Americans thinking they can get away with desecrating sacred artifacts and photographing the evidence. There's even a sense of raunchy comedy to discussions of the commune's explicit traditions, which both break tension and misdirect the audience from other threats.
Josh (William Jackson Harper), Pele (Vilhelm Blomgren), Christian (Jack Reynor) and Mark (Will Poulter) think they're just going on a Swedish vacation. Photo by Gabor Kotschy, Courtesy of A24
After all, once Dani, Christian, Mark, and Josh decide to stay, who are they to condemn the further traditions of Harga? Not that they could have easily escaped, but they didn't even try; so on some level they've implicitly condoned the commune's extreme acts. Most of the horror comes from the group's off-kilter, taboo-breaking acts. While they use psychedelic drugs and we see some CGI-enhanced trippy imagery, those aren't the most troubling images. Gory rituals and a suicide make human behavior the film's most disturbing aspect. Placed in the permanent daylight of Harga, Midsommar is an heir to The Shining for showing terror in broad daylight.
At 140 minutes, audiences may feel like they spent the whole summer in Harga, but the running time moves very quickly. The Harga tradition is riveting, and the Americans' drama is made compelling by the tense in-fighting between Dani, Christian, and Josh. Some of the awkward preamble of getting to Harga could be shorter, but once the friends arrive, the action doesn't stop.
Siv (Gunnel Fred) leads the flock. Photo by Gabor Kotschy, Courtesy of A24
Midsommar is a level above Hereditary. Hereditary had shocking gore that impacted the rest of the psychologically thrilling story, but there's even less of a supernatural element to Midsommar. Perhaps once Aster hooked up with A24, he realized that he didn't need to couch horror in the supernatural, so he created an unflinching look at the evil humans are capable of.