From John Singleton to M. Night Shyamalan, when a writer-director’s first full-length feature is so impressive, their follow-up is disappointing by comparison. This is also true of Ari Aster, who just last year brought us the highly original horror movie Hereditary. Unfortunately his latest film Midsommer is unsatisfying on many levels. This is a film that is billed as a “folk horror” with some critics highlighting the comedy element of the film but I didn’t find the movie to be particularly scary or funny. Midsommar is essentially a rip-off of the 1973 film The Wicker Man, or more accurately it’s The Wicker Man meets The Love Witch by way of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Apostle. This mish-mash of other films doesn’t result in a movie that’s original or satisfying so you’re left feeling unmoved and disinterested.
The plot of Midsommer is supposed to be straight-forward: a group of Americans get invited to Sweden to take part in a celebration that only occurs every 90 years but surprise, surprise, they find they’re actually taking part in a Pagan cult’s murderous festival. When you finally watch this film however, you realise that the plot has lots of unnecessary backstories, and they add nothing to the movie except extend the running time. There’s bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorder, suicide, thesis quarrels, relationship break-ups but none of this has any bearing on the unfolding story line. Hereditary also included a jumble of topics but they all converged to make a very distinctive film. Midsommar on the other hand is far from original. Imagine if The Wicker Man had a pointless side-plot about the Police Sergeant quarrelling with his cop buddies whilst going through relationship issues; not only would you be bored out of your skull, you’d be wondering what the point was.
Since you cannot avoid making comparisons to The Wicker Man when talking about Midsommar, I’ll remind everyone that the main focus of the original movie was to lure a devout Christian virgin to an island to sacrifice – pretty straight-forward – but here, are all these characters and their slightly convoluted lives useful to a Swedish Pagan cult? There’s Dani (Florence Pugh) a Psychology student who takes Lorazepam for anxiety about her bi-polar sister who has committed suicide and killed her parents, her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) wants to end their relationship but can’t because it would be bad timing. Christian has some Phd Uni buddies (including a nerd and a sex-starved twat) and two of them start feuding over who should write a thesis about the community they live with. Great, but why if you’re a cult pick them over anybody else? Who knows? I suppose one of them is called “Christian” (another nod to The Wicker Man) but other than a name there’s no rhyme nor reason why these people are selected.
Florence Pugh (who plays the bereaved girlfriend Dani Ardor) is the only decent actor in the entire film. Jack Reynor (who plays the boyfriend Christian Hughes), and friends William Jackson Harper (as Josh), Vilhelm Blomgren (as Pelle), and Will Poulter (as Mark) are far from being likeable, in fact you want them all to be sacrificed as soon as you see them chatting in the pizza restaurant. Reynor’s face in particular, is off-putting, kinda like seeing Jason Clarke in any film but I digress.
The Swedes in this movie are a Pagan cult who seem have read David Pinner’s Ritual and studied Sigurd Agrell’s Uthark Theory, but more importantly they’re also offensive stereotypes (herring-eating, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, unemotional, suicidal, sexually-liberal folk). Ari could have added Abba, Volvo, and Ikea to the mix but that may have been a tad too far.
Whilst watching this film, I couldn’t help but think what an outdated concept this really is. It’s a very mid-to-late twentieth century trope to pick a culture that the majority of the audience have no knowledge of and proceed to demean and vilify them. What this film shows is that there’s an art to demonising a foreign culture and whether it’s Amicus’ The Ghoul (Indians), Tales That Witness Madness (Hawaiians), Southern Comfort (Cajuns), or even Wrong Turn (Virginians) people have to believe (either through ignorance or prejudice) the culture, community, or race their watching. But unlike those flicks, this film doesn’t convincingly portray an unknown community, all it shows is that Hollywood has run-out of foreign races to mock and they’ve now resorted to ridiculing their own.
I have to point out that watching this film at my local cinema was made worse by the immature audience who were laughing (at all the wrong places). If fannies and willies make you giggle you are one. It really is a strange thing to witness descendants of European Pagans and Druids (here in the UK) who are oblivious to their heritage. Most of the world celebrates Spring and Harvest, hell, even the pyramid stage at the Glastonbury Festival has a Pagan reasoning behind it. It’s very odd that people of today find fertility rites strange and yet they rush out to buy eggs at Easter. Are people of today that ignorant of the past?
If you’ve ever been Maypole dancing (as my school made me do as a child) or listened to folk music, much of this film’s topics are the opposite of terrifying and given the daytime setting, it would have taken a horror maestro to make this film scary. I recall the day-set scene in Insidious (with the Tiny Tim song playing) which James Wan crafted quite well but aside from that, there’s something inherently non-threatening about a sunny day and Midsommar does nothing to change this instinctive feeling we all have about daylight.
There’s also quite a few aspects of Midsommar that don’t make sense. Firstly, Christian’s friends say they’re going to Sweden in June or July but the festival crowns a “May Queen”. We’re also told that in this culture people die at age 72 but this is a 90 year festival which means people die every year or every 9 years and nobody cares. Or are foreigners invited every 90 years in order to procreate with, which would make everybody born outside of this 90 year cycle a product of incest which would in turn ruin their “scripture”?
This film could have shown what Americans (and Brits) are like abroad but that was better conveyed in the first Hostel. There could have been a comment about how religions choose their deity or messenger (or “oracle” in this case) but that wasn’t really honed-in on. There’s a quick comment about what we in the west do to our old people (put them in nursing homes) but the rest of the film doesn’t explore differences in culture. I mean, we also take hallucinogenic drugs and dance till we drop but that wasn’t a viewpoint either.
It’s a given that if you make a “folk horror” it’s automatically going to be compared to the classic The Wicker Man but if you’re actually copying that movie including the ending, then there’s no surprise and not much point in going to see it. A film that isn’t unique has to have some meat to the story, some other reason to fork out for tickets. If a film reminds you of others it should have a built-in allegory or should be a morality tale but Midsommar is neither. When the credits roll you’re left thinking “what was the point to all of this?”. It’s almost like Ari Aster threw darts onto a board of post-it notes with story ideas written on them. I read somewhere that it was down to a producer’s request for a Swedish-set slasher film that Aster made this movie and even though he steered well-clear of tired slasher cliches, he instead wandered into other overdone filmic concepts. This movie would have been interesting if it was made by an Asian or African; a person of colour from a completely different culture viewing European society and history and caricaturing it because it’s so different. The fact that white people have now resorted to insulting white cultures makes me think that this is yet another fake-woke idea or prejudice horror is a characteristic only of Hollywood.
Ari Aster’s debut film Hereditary was also partly about cults but that tale was dark and mysterious rather than bright and cartoonish which is the case here. I still think Ari is a talented writer and director and he’s allowed to have a few blips in his career but please, can everybody stop overrating average movies? I mean Jordan Peele who made one of the most overrated “horror” films since The Exorcist praised this film so highly, I wondered if he watched an alternate cut…
“You’ve taken Stepford Wives and shattered the attractiveness of that movie with this one. That alone is a feat. Also, there are some obvious comps out there, but this movie is just so unique. This hasn’t existed yet, and anything after Midsommar is going to have to contend with it. I mean, this usurps The Wicker Man as the most iconic pagan movie to be referenced.” He goes on: “It’s a very unique feeling for a film to conjure because after it ended, I found myself looking back at the final act like, ‘Holy shit. That was some of the most atrociously disturbing imagery I’ve ever seen on film'”.
…I wonder if he’d drank some of the “tea” in Midsommar before he watched it.
What Midsommar shows is that rip-offs are accepted, that D-list actors are fine as long as the lead is talented, that Horror standards have fallen but more importantly that the entertainment sector loves to blow smoke up the arse of directors who’ve made one decent film.