Director Ari Aster makes bright daylight creepy in his effective “Midsommar.” (Courtesy A24)

Ari Aster’s ‘Midsommar’ is first-class horror

Film cleverly tackles classic, age-old themes

Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is the kind of horror movie that gives horror movies a good name.

While most in the genre are content to shock you or make your skin crawl (and not rise above “B” movie origins), at the hands of a real artist — for example, Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us”) or Robert Eggers (“The Witch,” the upcoming “The Lighthouse”) and now Aster — horror can reach farther.

“Midsommar” doesn’t have ghosts, monsters or supernatural forces. It’s about the evil within, and the question of which matters more: the group, or the self?

The story centers on anxiety-ridden Dani (Florence Pugh), who loses her sister and her parents in one tragic swoop. She wants to confide in her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), but senses that her neediness is pushing him away.

She’s right. Before the tragedy, Christian had been thinking of breaking up with her. But he decides he must invite her on his trip to Sweden with his friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter), both nonplussed by this inclusion.

The trip has been suggested by another friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who takes them to his village and a celebration that occurs once every 90 years.

Things begin with a stop in a field, where the group eats mushrooms and watches the trees “breathe.” It’s also the time of the midnight sun, and the never-ending brightness begins to feel weird.

There are creepy paintings on all the walls, a little seemingly innocent flirting, and more drugs pressed on the guests. The festival’s first ritual ends in shock and disbelief. And things only grow stranger as the nine-day celebrations go on.

Many horror movies depend on likable, mostly innocent heroes who blunder into scary situations. Aster’s heroes are not perfect. They’re flawed, selfish, entitled and inflexible. They’re also human enough to ensnare viewers and carry them along.

Meanwhile, the villagers, clad in white robes adorned with flower patterns and crowns of leaves, don’t seem intrinsically evil. They provide perfectly logical explanations for what happens, and do things together, as a family.

And when Dani mmust make a choice, it’s a genuinely interesting, disturbing one that that could go either way,

Aster, who made last year’s superb “Hereditary,” draws on first-class films like Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

He sets up daylight spaces with emptiness and open grass between the buildings, and nowhere for characters to hide or be alone. It’s as if there were safety in light and numbers, no place to be caught off guard. But such an idea is deceptive.

Working carefully, deliberately, as if lost in thought, Aster manages to make 140 minutes breeze by. We feel as though we’re lying on a hillside, listening to the rhythms of the earth, a little alarmed.

One moment — when Dani, adorned from head to foot in a bulky, bobbing dress made of flowers, running in slow-motion in front of a burning building — will no doubt go down as one of the most indelible images of our time.

This scene, and the whole movie, illustrate a century-old horror movie theme, one shared with “Frankenstein.” We go about our lives thinking that other things are monstrous. But what if we, ourselves, are the monsters?

REVIEW

Midsommar

Three and a half stars

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter

Written and directed by: Ari Aster

Rated: R

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

 

Jack Reynor and Florence Pugh star in “Midsommar.” (Courtesy Gabor Kotschy/A24)

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