Dir: Ari Aster
Folk horror’s come of age recently. In the early days it was little more than a loose link between three works from the glory days of British horror, which shared something in spirit, but were, in fact, quite disparate films. Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973) set the benchmark, and the intervening years have seen more and more entries retrospectively shoehorned into the genre, while recent releases have capitalised on the renewed enthusiasm for it. See successful entry The Witch (2015), perhaps less so, The Ritual (2017). Either way, it’s proved to be an exceptionally difficult style to get right, all three of those archetypes being partly defined by daring originality.
Acknowledged as the daddy in the field, respect for The Wicker Man has seeped steadily through the soil ever since. Now, nearly 50 years later, an enormous build-up of backed up appreciation springs forth. It is impossible to talk about Midsommar without referring to The Wicker Man. It is revisiting its themes so squarely, so wholeheartedly, and with such unashamed aplomb. Scriptwriter Anthony Shaffer sowed that devilishly ingenious seed all that time ago, and, nurtured by word of mouth and cult fandom, its stature has grown unstoppably since. This is a gloriously colourful outpouring of all things ‘Wicker’, nay Wiccan …extended, expanded and extrapolated, to be showered over a generation for whom director Robin Hardy’s prototype is now probably too ‘old-fashioned’ to appeal.
It makes for a thoroughly entertaining, not-to-say downright disturbing, two-and-a-half hours. Three mates visit their Swedish friend Pelle in a remote commune in his homeland, to witness some …er, ‘rural’ celebrations around summer solstice. Dani (Florence Pugh), girlfriend of Christian (Jack Reynor), tags along at the last minute, in the aftermath of an appalling family tragedy, hopeful of taking her mind off the trauma. Good luck with that. Especially if you’re going to take magic mushrooms the second you step out of the car. So the set-up might feel like a simple update of Sergeant Howie’s trip north of the border to Summerisle, but really, if you’re going to re-enter this realm so determinedly, what other set-up can there be?
Pugh, building on fine performances in the similarly sombre Lady Macbeth (2016), but also the joyfully empowering Fighting with my Family (2019), is hugely impressive once again. Right from the off, too. As she desperately tries to get in touch with her sister in the prologue, we’re hooked by a thoroughly convincing and emotional close-up performance. Boyf Christian and intrigued student Joshua (William Jackson Harper) are solid and credible, while Will Poulter adds as close as this film gets to comedy. Ok, there are precisely zero intended jokes in this drawn-out dissection of grim ceremony (sometimes, a literal dissection, mind), but Poulter’s sardonic asides bring the lightest sprinkling of something approaching humour. And boy, it’s appreciated.
The cinematography has a beautifully light, bright and clear colour palette. You have to wonder: has any horror film (a genre that obviously thrives in the shadows) ever been this resolutely sunny all the way through? So much so, it’s a plot point; it never getting properly dark at night in this neck of the woods. It disorientates both the American guests, and us, as we all lose any sense of a day’s passing. The effect is amplified by a lengthy runtime. Yes, it is kinda slow; an incremental creep towards a presumably inevitable conclusion, but such organic pacing fits with the return-to-nature ethos of Pelle’s peculiar pals.
As with many horrors, there are questions of credibility. Mainly, why the heck do the visitors stick around at all after the brutal shock of the first ‘custom’? And it is truly shocking. And yes, the whole premise is technically derivative, but it would be missing the point to criticise that. If you’re going to explore a world of ancient pagan terror you will unavoidably be in the looming shadow of its core text, so why not embrace it? Also, does Dani’s background familial anguish actually serve the plot, or is it only there to upset you from the beginning? It’s arguable either way. Whichever it is, you’re gradually introduced to a slow-release structure of unsettling imagery, such that you get rather acclimatised to it all. Only afterwards do those pictures flash back into the brain, re-emphasised in their gory glory in the cold dark of night.
Like he did with Hereditary (2018), Ari Aster makes A-list shockers that are admirably extreme. He’s using tropes familiar to enthusiasts, but serving them up to a new audience in fine, full-blooded style. If you are acquainted with The Wicker Man, you will view this as a 21st century tribute, an exploded adoration. And if you aren’t, it introduces its ideas in magnified, technicolour detail, leads you down a similar garden path, and may just freak the sweet bejaysus out of you.
And if you go down to the multiplex today, in search of a big surprise with your mates, you may just leave saying, “who the hell suggested THAT?!?” As the jolly group of wine and popcorn laden friends did in the screening I saw. The wicked part of me knows that, for the health of the horror genre, that can only be a good thing.
★ ★ ★ ★