Carry on Screaming. About Morris Dancing.
So, Ari Aster. On his Wikipedia page, the American director is described as being obsessed with horror movies. In 2018, he released Hereditary, its masterful trailer drawing me in as surely as Freddy Krueger is pulled into a teenage dream. It’s disappointing then, that the most interesting thing about the film turned out to be the debate between Mark Kermode and Robbie Collin.
I was firmly in Mr Flappy Hand Kermode’s camp (Hello to Jason Isaacs, etc.). The first half of Hereditary was great. Really great. It was creepy, uncomfortable and filmed with brilliant flair. It looked at things unsaid, on pauses in communication that reveal much about things that can never be spoken. It created a world steeped in dread and fear, not of the other, but worse, of the people closest to you, the people you love. It was outstanding. And it culminated in the most viscerally shocking scene I had watched for a long time, a moment of true horror in a horror film. Then… then it degenerated into a ridiculous, schlocky, painfully un-scary load of nonsense. The goodwill earned in the first half was wasted. Yes, it made sense and followed its internal logic, but it was so far removed from the character-driven chills of the first half, it felt like a completely different, lesser, movie.
Kermode was in the minority with his opinion. Many people liked and were scared by Hereditary. There’s a pattern here when a horror film succeeds and enters the common conversation. Just like Ari Aster, I love horror movies, love to be scared. I’ve watched a lot of horrors, seeking another hit of delightful fear. While Hereditary was far from the most successful Hollywood horror that year (Halloween and A Quiet Place did better, for example), it became the most successful release for its distributors, A24. A lot of ‘ordinary’ people watched it, not just hardened horror nerds.
I vividly remember the concern on my landlord’s face when she found my videotape of Evil Dead II in the VCR she’d lent me. Even the title is disconcerting for non-horror aficionados, particularly since the original film was infamously declared a ‘video nasty’ in the Eighties. Some of us go looking for films that others wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot severed limb (ten severed feet?). So, when a horror movie breaks through into the mainstream consciousness, a Paranormal Activity say, or a Saw, then it damned well better be scary to work for those of us who enjoy horror regularly. The ‘normal’ cinema-goers on the other hand, who rarely watch this kind of thing and go see it out of curiosity, will likely have a lower threshold for cinematic fright, so the popular word of mouth gets louder and a vicious cycle is created. People were talking about Hereditary as if it was the scariest film ever made, for heaven’s sake. No wonder Kermode, who wrote his PhD thesis on horror fiction, and has repeatedly called The Exorcist the scariest film, wasn’t a fan. Of course, it’s silly to call any film the ‘scariest ever made’, because fear is subjective. Some people fear clowns, some are terrified of spiders, some people have been to war and seen real horror so the rest of us don’t have to. The Shining tops many lists of scariest films and though I love it, think it is clearly, objectively brilliant, I don’t recall ever having been scared by it. At some point, I might write my own list of most frightening horror films, chances are you’ll disagree.
So, Hereditary was a victim of its own hype. If anything, I found the second half laughable. But it was remarkably well made and did have that one moment of pristine horror.
I watched Midsommar in my perfect setting for a horror: at home, alone, at night, with all the lights off and the curtains open, just in case some gibbering monstrosity decided to thrust its face against the windowpane. After the Hereditary experience, I was a little sceptical, but the word on the street was good and I really, really wanted to like this and to be scared.
Okay, good points first then. This film is utterly, utterly beautiful. The camerawork felt a bit showy, to begin with, but once things get going, it settles into a playful variation of the floating camera technique (think those early shots in Alien, when the camera drifts around the ship, giving a creeping feeling of things hiding just out of shot). This style works well to enhance the creepiness and sense of dislocation. The colours are vibrant, the architecture remarkable and there’s a strong sense of geography, you always know each location’s relation to everything else. It is stunning to look at, so much so that I couldn’t turn it off even if I wanted to (spoiler: I did). Aster and his cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski must be praised. Every single frame is gorgeous.
The acting is great. Florence Pugh increasingly reminds me of Kate Winslet, not just physically, but also her acting style and ability. Be in no doubt, this is high praise. Jack Reynor is very good as her boyfriend too, particularly in those subtle moments which Aster excels at, those silences that speak volumes. Supporting roles are filled by the like of the ever-dependable Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place). They do well with what they’re given.
Aster has described this as ‘technically a contribution to the folk-horror sub-genre’. To give him his due, he also talks about this being a different film entirely and seeking to confuse and confound his audience. I am really hoping that one day I’ll watch this again, look at it more deeply and end up loving it. I look forward to writing a contrite re-evaluation on this site. But the fact is, it was marketed as a horror movie. Any worthwhile story seeks underlying themes, but the surface intention of this, it seems clear, is to be a horror movie. And to warrant a deeper assessment, surely a work of art must succeed in its aims? Or at least come close?
There is one section where I worried there might be animal cruelty. That was the closest I got to being scared at any point and it made me realise that I didn’t care about any of the human characters, no matter how good the acting.
As I said, horror is subjective, but unless you avoid horror movies like the plague (in which case, why would you watch this), I can’t imagine anyone being scared by Midsommar. For a start, the minute you say, ‘folk horror’, you know where it’s going. True, the journey is more interesting than the destination, but even those who haven’t seen The Wicker Man know how it ends. Edward Woodward, though, gets a growing sense of unease along with the audience after he arrives on Summerisle. The moment the protagonists of Midsommar arrive at their destination, it’s clear they’re surrounded by batshit crazy lunatics.
There’s some gore about halfway through. It might gross you out if cat food gives you nightmares, but frankly, the scene was both so predictable and so ridiculous, I started giggling and struggled to stop. It was the start of a climb up a pretentious mountain of guff. All I could hear was Eddie Murphy whispering “GET OUT!”.
There was one moment of horror when pausing it to eat, I realised I was only half-way through a two-and-a-half-hour film! Are you freaking kidding me? Two and a half hours of Morris dancing, screaming, swinging, eating (there’s a LOT of eating), arguing, moaning, willies, fannies, pubic hair, flowers, hallucinations, meaningful gazes and utterly humourless nonsense. It’s boring and patently not scary.
Ari Aster is a great filmmaker. He has real talent and will make amazing pictures, but I’d love to see him make a drama or perhaps an SF movie, rather than a horror.
As for me, the next horror movie I’ll try is Crawl. A ninety-minute cheesy, gory Jaws rip off, by the look of it. Bring it on!