Most horror films set their snares in the dark.
It’s only natural. Scares shrouded in the shadows probe the primal corners of our primitive brains, recalling a time where predators lurked outside the safety encircled by the fire’s light. From a practical perspective, too, it just makes sense: even the chintziest movie monster takes on an aura of menace when its silhouetted by darkness.
There are exceptions. Midsommar is the latest film to join the rare echelon of daytime horror like Funny Games, The Hills Have Eyes and The Wicker Man. The latter (alongside Witchfinder General) is an unmistakable influence of Ari Aster’s latest, given Midsommar’s preoccupation with nefarious cult rituals, but the setting – provincial Sweden in the midst of summer – is what provides the perpetual daylight. It’s not really ‘day’ light – even in the middle of the night, the barely-set sun illuminates proceedings with a dully ominous glow – but the net effect sets the film apart from its genre contemporaries.
The lighting also aligns Midsommar closely with the conventions Aster established in his breakthrough, last year’s Hereditary. That film, a sort-of riff on Rosemary’s Baby, felt more like a tragedy than a traditional horror film due to its fastidious foreshadowing. While jump scares are unfairly maligned, Hereditary was interesting because of Aster’s relentless refusal to rely on such surprises, instead ensuring that the film’s traumas felt inevitable; preordained. With constant daylight obviating any shadows, Midsommar similarly ensures we see every moment of horror coming.
This inevitability is reinforced by the set design. Fresh off a family trauma, Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) head to an isolated commune with Josh (The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who hails from the community. The gorgeous, tranquil Swedish surrounds are decorated with colourful but foreboding murals promising violence and sacrifice. Pay attention to these friezes – or, at least, a little more attention than our dopey heroes – and the horrors of the third act will seem anything but surprising.
In a few ways, Midsommar is a step up from Hereditary. What sunk Hereditary for me – or at least, made it ‘good’ rather than ‘great’ – was Aster’s inability to shift gears from familial tension to all-out horror absurdity in the final chapter. The cinema in which I saw the film broke out into warm laughs throughout most of Hereditary’s last fifteen minutes. That didn’t feel intentional. Here, Aster’s control of tone is far superior. The opening scene is terrifying in its building tension, and early scenes in Sweden expertly evoke tranquillity while a faint tenor of menace hums beneath the surface. And there are many images here that are at once original and memorable.
Unfortunately, on the whole, Midsommar is a step down from its predecessor. That’s largely because its emotional throughline isn’t as poignant. There’s an attempt to grapple with full-throated grief and a fundamental need for acceptance in a disconnected society, ably supported Pugh’s exceptionally raw performance. But the depth is lacking, which I blame on two factors: the film’s length and the plausibility of its characters’ actions.
I’ve never been one to gripe too much about characters in horror movies making dumb decisions. It’s part and parcel with the genre, and usually justified by terror breaking down our ability to think rationally. But a slow burn like Midsommar – which stretches out over nearly two-and-a-half hours – gives our characters plenty of time to luxuriate in their incredibly idiotic choices. Perhaps the initial obliviousness to the commune’s menacing undertones can be forgiven by hallucinogens and general good vibes, but when the cult’s elders start committing suicide, other visitors mysteriously disappear and screams echo in the distance, it’s hard to believe that everyone would remain so profoundly chill.
Granted, you can credit some of the characters’ decision-making to Christian and Josh’s careers. Each is a PhD student in anthropology; each latches onto the community’s unconventional customs as a pathway to academic acclaim. But that’s rarely articulated clearly in the dialogue, undermining any emotional realism through characters utterly deigning to engage with the disappearance of their friends. Again, the film’s runtime is a factor here. A crisply-edited 100 minute film might’ve moved too swiftly for us to reflect upon all this, but with Midsommar’s unhurried pacing it begins to unpick the mood that Aster’s spent so much effort to establish.
Frankly, this is a film that could’ve benefited from the over-the-top ridiculousness of Hereditary’s final stretch. Midsommar spends so much time building anticipation for the inevitable horrors, and while the shape of them is unambiguous, the particulars remain elusive until the last half-hour. If Aster had gone all-out here, I could’ve forgiven lapses in emotional realism because of the payoff. Instead, the conclusion feels pedestrian if you have a passing familiarity with the genre, comparing unfavourably with The Wicker Man or – more recently – the likes of The Endless or even The Apostle.
There’s a glimmer of a good, even great, film lurking within Midsommar. As mentioned, Pugh is exceptional and Aster continues to demonstrate a great eye for memorable imagery. Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography is exceptional, creating an Instagram-esque aesthetic defined by bright, natural colours. You sense that there’s an undercurrent trying to critique a contemporary obsession with ‘authentic’ yet inevitably picturesque communities, or more generally the invasive lens of anthropology, but it never cohered for me. There’s a lot of promise here, but the final product wilts under the harsh glare of sunlight.