Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Where There's Sun, There's Fright

I caught up with Midsommar over the weekend, having done my best over the last couple of weeks to avoid hearing any details about the story.  Hereditary I certainly found effective so I had high hopes for Midsommar and most of the feedback I got from friends and acquaintances was good.  Well, I wasn't disappointed.

I like all sorts of horror movies, but when they work, there's no horror I like more than the slow-building kind, where tension and dread gradually build, uncanny and disturbing detail following uncanny and disturbing detail, the mousetrap getting tighter and tighter for the characters. That Ari Aster loves the films of Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick is apparent, but he has his own sensibility and he seems like one of those directors who emerged, as it were, fully formed. Two feature films in, and he's good with story development, mood, tension, the actors, the sound design, the camera -- pretty much everything.  And so far, in those two films, he has plunged right into focusing on grief and trauma and mourning and the horror that can come from family ties -- no fooling around with tongue in cheek horror or horror that has a meta quality. I have no quibbles with that.

Among my favorite folk horror films to date are the ones most horror film lovers mention: Witchfinder General with Vincent Price (1968), the weird and nightmarish Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), and of course The Wicker Man (1973), with Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee.  There have been others, and I would certainly throw in Ben Wheatley's Kill List (2011), which doesn't seem to start as a horror film at all but turns into something terrifying.  

Midsommar is now added to the list.  

Ari Aster knows quite well how to blend the mundane and absurd with the dreadful.  He can be funny in the most unexpected places, an ability that helps keep the viewer off-balance, and it would be hard to find a better example of how to wring tension from brightness. Once the story reaches Sweden, is there a shadow in the film?  Maybe one or two, no more.

Do you know where Midsommar is heading as you watch? Basically, yes.  Of course.  But the pleasure resides in how the trippy story unfolds, the tension and unease along the way, the many small surprises.  Florence Pugh in the lead role is great, and I liked the idea of the character of Josh, the black guy there in Sweden with the others doing his thesis on the odd folk rituals and customs of the group.  Everyone has seen countless movies where there's a white person exploring some unusual or "exotic" clan or cult in some far-flung part of the world, and without making a big deal about it, Ari Aster reverses that device here.  Nice.  Now whether that guarantees Josh's safety...It may, it may not...

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