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Review: In the ambitious 'Midsommar,' there’s much more to be afraid of than the dark

A24

A24

If you’ve seen Hereditary, you already know how skilled Ari Aster is at scaring the crap out of people. It was an instant horror classic, an even more impressive accomplishment because it was the director’s debut feature. Aster’s already shown off his talent for the genre. With Midsommar, he reveals his aspirations.

While it stills works within a classic horror framework, Midsommar ’s setting makes for an uncommon scary movie. After a family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and his Ph.D.-candidate buddies on a trip to rural Sweden, where the midnight sun shines a light on the strange customs of a secretive commune. Most of the picture takes place during the “daytime,” which offers a unique challenge for a horror director. It’s a bold move for a second feature, but Aster is more than capable of creeping us out without physical darkness to rely on.

Midsommar ’s trajectory isn’t hard to guess, especially when the characters do their very best to ignore countless red flags—for wannabe doctors, these guys aren’t too bright. That predictability would be a knock if the execution weren’t so good, with Midsommar’s trope use ultimately feeling like an homage to the Dumb College Kids in the Woods subgenre, rather than a failed plot. In some ways it’s actually scarier to know the broader strokes of what’s coming, because that tension sits with us until the other shoe drops, and Midsommar proves to be as weird as it is memorable.

Beyond the scares, Midsommar parades around some interesting technical choices. Sure, there might not be a single moment as masterfully blocked as that Toni Collette corner shot in Hereditary (if you know, you know). Yet Aster still displays a keen ability to put his cast—from the stars to a made-up inbred character to a bunch of naked extras—in the right place for maximum impact.

What’s more, Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography is mesmerizing—and that’s not something that you often notice in a horror movie. Whether it’s all in-camera or some post-production magic, it’s truly unlike anything I’ve seen. Composition is one thing, but the little details are what really stand out. The highlights often look blown out, casting halos on lights, making the sky look unnatural, giving the commune’s ceremonial garb a glowing effect. Lens filters or maybe just rear anamorphics (or both?) produce strange sun flares. And those qualities combined with subtle psychedelic CGI not only produce one of the most realistic depictions of hallucinogenic drug use in film (or so I’m told), but relate that experience to the audience.

Hereditary might be better overall, but Midsommar is easily more ambitious. Aster could’ve followed up his amazing breakout with something safe and familiar, both in-story and out. But like Jordan Peele before him, he tried his hand at a different kind of nightmare, swung for the fences, and came up with a substantial and spooky second feature.

Midsommar
Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper
Rated: R
Theater: Area theaters, now showing