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Why Ari Aster's Newest Masterpiece is a Completely New Type of Horror

Writer and director Ari Aster is leading a new era of horror movies. Hereditary, Aster’s first release with A24 films, debuted his iconic, deeply disturbing tone. Now with Midsommar, he has found a new way to petrify audiences—broad daylight. Almost every single horror film takes place in the dark cover of night, but the vivid clarity of this movie is what makes it even scarier. There is nowhere to hide and nothing is missed. However, this component is just one of the many that make this masterpiece so much more than a good scare.

Warning: Spoilers for Midsommar and Hereditary Below

midsommar

It’s actually a breakup movie

Following the tragic death of her parents and sister, Dani Ardor leans intensely on her aloof, long-term boyfriend Christian for emotional support. In hopes of getting her mind off of her unbearable reality along with repairing their dwindling relationship, Dani accepts Christian’s insincere invitation to join him and his three friends on a trip to Sweden for a midsummer festival in the small commune where Christian’s friend Pelle is from. Though many horrors ensue as the group learns more about the agenda of the community of “Harga” around them, Aster says that’s not what this film is about. He describes Midsommar to the Los Angeles Times as “a big operatic breakup movie that sort of makes literal those feelings, where a breakup can feel apocalyptic, like the world is ending.” Near the end of the movie, Dani finds Christian “mating” with another woman and runs crying to the bunk house as Harga women surround her in their own form of emotional support. Though their response is quite intensely emotional and unexpected, the women weeping around her on the floor symbolize the experience of true empathy—something Dani has not experienced in a long time from a romantic partner or family member. As the plot develops, Dani and Christian become gradually more separated through different hallucinogenic trips and ceremonial roles until Dani, as the all-powerful May Queen, ultimately decides to have him executed. For every member of the American friend group other than Dani, this trip turns out to be a nightmare and the end of their lives. For Dani, however, it is a fairy tale—getting out of her toxic relationship and cleansing herself of the melancholy life she led in the states for a new family that fully supports her. A smile forms slowly on her face as she watches her former beloved and his friends go up in flames.

The end is no surprise

One of the essential tools in most horror movies is the unknown. In Midsommar, the end is nothing new. It’s how the story ends up at that highly anticipated conclusion that keeps the audience wanting more while covering their eyes in fear. In a similar fashion to Hereditary, one of the most horrific events takes place in the beginning, and the focus is not on the event itself but the grief that follows. Both of these films feature some of the most raw, gut-wrenching crying sequences in cinema. The effect of these scenes is striking because the audience is forced to sit and reflect on the unthinkable tragedy that the protagonist has just experienced while listening to a wholly uninhibited outpouring of emotion to help the reality sink in. Furthermore, not only can it be easily concluded from the trailer that the execution is coming, but key events from the film are explicitly outlined in paintings on tapestries and the walls of the bunk house. This imagery serves a similar function as the dollhouses in Hereditary which also outline major plot points. Most of these spoilers are out of focus or shown only for a brief moment, however, the sentiment is still clear.

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The visuals are equally important

Horror movies are not commonly known for their visual appeal, but this is quite the opposite. Almost equal to the intricacy of the plot is the allure of the cinematography, set, and costumes. Everyone in the village is adorned with elegant, handmade garments constructed with white fabric and accented by unique floral embroidery. Headdresses such as wraps, headbands and flower crowns are also commonly featured and all contribute to the ironically delicate, innocent aura. By the time Christian is being executed, Dani is wearing a gorgeous gown made entirely of flowers—covered in blossoming life as she watches the all-consuming flames that are erasing her past. Opposing the otherwise mild atmosphere is the sun’s direct, perpetual light. Using the daylight in such a prominent way yields a slightly white-washed, film-like effect on some shots. In the same way that the Harga people are often so bright-sided that it comes across discomforting, these shots can be almost straining on the eyes of the audience. One iteration of this effect takes place during the shocking suicide ritual in which two elders jump off a cliff to complete the circle of life—something that is highly triggering for all visitors but joyously celebrated by the Harga. Another expertly nuanced visual is the hallucinogenic effect. The morphing of the trees, grass, food, flowers, and other objects is perfectly refined so that the viewer notices the subtle movement but is not distracted by it. As well as being the perfect amount, the effect is extremely accurate. In his article for Fast Company, Joe Berkowitz describes the sequences; “color cascades, light bends, and all of nature feels vibrantly alive.”