Writer/ Director Ari Aster set the bar impossibly high for himself last year with his feature debut Hereditary. One year later sees him limbo slightly under it with this beguiling, striking and surprisingly hilarious follow-up that tonally deviates from its predecessor but is none the less captivating. Unlike Hereditary’s burning terror, knife sharp frights and (what felt like) perpetual darkness, Midsommar is more illusory, expansive and visually astounding. Mostly set in glorious daylight with serene, breath-taking sceneries, Aster’s latest hums with vibrant colour in a plot permeated by grotesque surrealism which allures and repels in equal measure like a pixie vomiting petals.
Where Hereditary focused on a fractured family drama, Midsommar looks at strained teenage friendships in its tale of troubled student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh). After devastating family tragedies and relationship dramas, Dani travels with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and anthropology student friends to a nine day, solstice-celebrating “pagan” festival in Hälsingland, Sweden. The friends are warmly welcomed by the white robe wearing commune who invite them to engage in their ceremonial practices, but the crew soon find themselves over-enmeshed in the revelries and uncover dark, ulterior motives behind the cult’s creepy smiles.
Aster weaves an intoxicating dream air that’s not totally dissimilar to Hereditary’s stifling nightmare. His camera glides like a ghost through time, twisting character/viewer perceptions then spiking our expectations with brain stabbing terror and graphic violence. Shots of frozen landscape and claustrophobic interiors paint Dani’s brain space aptly during the set-up before opening both her and us up to the new, defective Oz-like locale. Considering setting is a key component for mining horror, Aster challenges himself by making Midsommar warm, bright and wonderful, almost to the point where once could imagine a Teletubby popping up from behind one of the hexagonal huts. For the better part his Hälsingland (it was actually shot in Hungary) is so distractingly captivating, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees let alone the evil hidden within it.
Character relationships/ conflicts are established then bud spectacularly and become multifaceted as the film progresses and friendships grow then dissolve. The rich, perplexing visuals are Midsommar’s most distinctive feature. Odd angled edifices, twisted pagan practices/ “history” and fictional witchery informs the horror with roots in reality to make it more terrifying. The sound design also unnerves through its mending of strings and distorted yodelling with diegetic clatter and a disturbing score by Bobby Krlic (AKA The Haxan Clock) who hurls Nordic instruments like the hurdy gurdy and key harp into the melange.
Despite brilliantly bright, glowing natural palettes and heavenly rural, sun-caked settings, Aster disturbs with the icy precision of Kubrick, Roeg and Polanski. Sacred temples, caged bears, oracles, murals, astrology and insects are other objects/ plot components that contribute to the creepiness, while unique visuals (with a special nod to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski) make Midsommar feel like The Wizard of Oz filmed in North Korea. Despite surface similarities to The Wicker Man and Ti West’s The Sacrament, his second feature stuns and unsettles like no other as the writer/ director worms monstrosities and trepidation into a kaleidoscopic melting pot of picturesque landscapes, pious malaise and core rattling horror that’s both beautiful and terrifying.