Ari Aster’s much-anticipated sophomore feature Midsommar has hit Australian cinemas.
The good news for horror fans is that Midsommar may be the most horrifying, disturbing movie of 2019.
The bad news is that we’ve scarcely had time to recover from Aster’s debut, Hereditary, hands down the most horrifying, disturbing film of 2018.
Midsommar owes plenty to The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy’s revered 1973 horror wherein a rigid police sergeant is sent to a remote Scottish island in search of a missing girl, only to fall victim to a lunatic harvest cult.
In Midsommar it isn’t a missing child but a personal crisis that causes a couple under duress, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) to travel to Sweden to visit a fabled mid-summer festival in the ancestral commune of Christian’s friend Pelle, the Harga.
They are accompanied by more of Christian’s friends, the abrasive Mark and the bookish Josh, and once there link up with English couple, Simon and Connie.
Aster has described his film as “The Wizard of Oz for perverts” and as Dani and Christian’s pastoral idyll descends into unspeakable pagan horrors this description seems reasonable.
After the critical success of Hereditary, Aster was assigned to develop a slasher film set in Sweden.
Unable to extract a plot from that concept (which seems odd given Scandinavia’s penchant for black metal church burnings) Aster focused the story on a couple on the edge of breakup who use travel to resurrect their relationship.
But what awaits them in the Harga is a far cry from Christmas with the in-laws – even the worst ones.
Midsommar demonstrates Aster’s skills in constructing visceral terror around recognisable relationship issues.
In Hereditary, a shocking witchcraft movie develops from a family’s struggle with loss and mental illness.
Aster also subverts horror conventions by setting the ghastly goings on in bright sunlight.
Slasher films have conditioned us to breathe out when it’s light outside and prepare ourselves for shocks in the darkness and shadows.
Aster provides no such relief to his audience.
Daylight is more deadly than night and with the sun always shining in the Arctic Circle there is literally nowhere to hide.
So, the horror doesn’t spring from the shadows with hissing and fangs: it radiates forth from the sun’s relentless presence and shiny, smiling, fair-haired Swedes luring the victims to their destruction through dance, song and sex (those of us who grew up in the 1970s, dominated by the sounds and images of ABBA, might find this plot device particularly unsettling).
It’s in the reveal, however, that Midsommar lets itself down slightly.
There really isn’t a sense of foreboding or slow burn as the sacrificial lambs realise they’ve walked into something deadly.
The Hagar community is a freak show from the start and within a day of arriving the visitors witness the community retiring two of its elders in particularly grisly fashion.
From there it’s only a matter of time before Christian’s friends start disappearing.
As he did with Hereditary, Aster top-loads the horror in Midsommar.
The most horrific sequences occur during the first hour. But Hereditary kept some shocks up its sleeve to balance out the fact that audiences were ready to faint after the first act.
There’s horror aplenty throughout Midsommar, but after the gut-wrenching sequences of the opening hour, everything that follows is almost a relief. Indeed, there is even an element of humour to be found in the way some of the visitors, Mark (Will Poulter) in particular, respond to the weird rituals surrounding them.
This extends to a pagan sex orgy preceding the final acts of violence that is so strange and unerotic it looks as if it could’ve been directed by Judd Apatow of 40-Year-Old Virgin fame.
In the end, Midsommar delivers the goods – I’ll never look at storybook bears in the same way again.
It’s likely to be one of the most disturbing films you’ll see this year if you gird your loins to go.
But with the two hours-plus Hereditary and the two-and-a-half hour Midsommar, Aster seems to be making a habit of piling horror upon horror to wear down his audience’s resistance.
Perhaps next time he might try seducing us before leading us into an ambush instead.