Countdown to Halloween: The Horror of Breakups

Florence Pugh as Dani in "Midsommar." (Source: YouTube)

NOTE: This is a new movie. So as a forewarning, there might be slight spoilers ahead. That being said, I did attempt to keep this at least quasi-spoiler free, but considering the nature of the film and the themes therein, it’s nearly impossible to talk about this movie without talking about SOME spoilers.

As I stated at the end of the last article, we’d be covering a movie that recently released and a movie that, by all intents and purposes, may not even be a “horror” movie. That is to say, it’s being marketed as such. It looks like one, as it’s filled to its brim with disturbing images and terror, but it may not be a horror movie. And that’s perfectly fine.

You see, that is the point of this series if you hadn’t yet noticed. It’s not just a list of “the best” or “my favorite” horror movies. And don’t get me wrong, I’m trying to pick things that I consider to be “great” or “favorites” despite the subjective nature of those words. But instead, the idea is to explore the genre that goes by the handle “horror.”

So, let’s talk about Ari Aster’s “Midsommar.”

Midsommar’s original trailer. (A24 Films/YouTube)

You might be familiar with the name, Ari Aster, or at the very least, you’re aware that this is made by the same guy who directed last year’s “Hereditary;” that movie that cut right deep to the trauma of family tragedy unlike few, “non-horror” movies.

A lot of people complained about the ending of “Hereditary” saying that it had gone off the rails, or that it didn’t fit tonally with the rest of the film. Some people complained about the rest of the film, as it doesn’t have a lot of traditional scares up until the last twenty or so minutes.

The same COULD be said for “Midsommar” but like those opinions of yesteryear, I think that the real problem is expectation.

You see, when people go into a “horror” movie they expect a quota to be met. They expect that it will follow a set formula. For anybody who is versed in the genre, the rhythm feels almost like second nature. There’s the opening slaughter, followed by the buildup, which crescendos into a bloodbath of terror.

But Aster creates “horror” films in a different way. There is no opening slaughter. That’s fine, there wasn’t one in “The Shining” nor “Alien” nor a bevy of other classic horror films. And yes, there is a buildup, but except for “Hereditary,” there is no great finale of violence. Don’t get me wrong, “Midsommar’s” end is violent. It’s very, very violent. And there is a heaping helping of violence throughout.

But the really affecting stuff isn’t the violence. It’s what comes after.

A conversation with the film’s director, Ari Aster. (Film at Lincoln Center/YouTube)

The movie begins with Dani, our protagonist, trying desperately to get her boyfriend, Christian’s attention as she worries about an email her sister sent her. Christian is with his friends all gathered around, all discussing how Christian desperately wants out of the relationship; citing Dani’s neediness.

It’s evident in the scene that Dani is needy, and we almost immediately empathize with Christian, though ultimately we end up siding with Dani by the film’s end.

Now, I won’t give away what exactly happens, but almost immediately we figure out that Dani has every reason to worry. I’ll just say that what happens is a tragedy of Greek proportions and that the scene that revealed the full extent of the aftermath literally had my heart running around my chest like a caged rabbit.

Again, it’s not violent. We don’t see a visceral, violent act being carried out with a shaky cinéma vérité style camerawork. Instead, we see a very long, very purposeful pan through the aftermath, and it is SO MUCH MORE affecting. As I said, my heart beat around my ribcage like a cornered, frightened animal.

And I’m not by any means the only person who had this reaction. In fact, I have talked to several people who had similar reactions to all of the “violent acts” throughout the film. The power of the “horror” in Aster’s films isn’t in their ability to scare you with quick, cheap jump scares, nor even to slowly drip terror into you through slowly paced moments of tension.

No, Aster scares you by digging deep into your psyche, finding the bits of hurt and pulling them out. In “Hereditary” he did this by highlighting the inherent drama in familial bonds, and the ways in which we destroy the people closest to us.

Sure, that tension was set off by that BIG MOMENT. You know which one I’m talking about if you’ve seen the film. But the seeds for all of that anger and frustration and tension were there at the beginning. They’re there in the interactions between teens and parents on sitcoms. 

It’s the idea that: you don’t know who I am and you’re failing me. It’s an unspoken thing between members of even the tightest of families.

“Midsommar” sets up that tension with that opening scene, in which two people in a relationship debate, amidst the fears and tensions of everyday life, if their partner is good for them and if they’re good for their partner.

From there, tragedy strikes and Christian, who wanted out of the relationship stays with Dani and in the upcoming months heads off to northern Sweden, with Dani in tow, much to Dani’s hesitance.

Now I won’t give you a blow by blow of the plot thereafter, but it is important to know this: Christian and his friends are anthropologists; as in, well, people who study people; and as such they go with a college friend and native Swede, Pelle, back to his homeland to study a festival held by his native village.

Ari Aster, the film’s director, breaks down a scene in the movie. (The New York Times/YouTube)

A lot of things happen that are shocking and as normal people you’re probably going to say to yourself, “Why don’t they go home? Why are they interacting with this?” And to that I say, hey, the movie already told you, they’re anthropologists, this is literally what they do.

So, with that out of the way, we can not get to the meat of the film. Which is, of course, the fact that by the film’s end, I was smiling.

What? Why would you be smiling? That seems weird, right? There’s seppuku like violence in this movie. There’s human sacrifice. There’s a woman in a full-body flower suit crying while watching a giant bonfire.

Yeah, it’s amazing. And no, I’m not some weird sadist who loves the hyper-violence of the Tarantino-esque splatterfest that was the ‘80s slasher genre, nor any of the homages to them, nor any of Eli Roth’s brand of “torture-horror.” Not that I hate ‘80s slasher movies or the latter homages to them (I do hate Eli Roth’s brand of horror though) it’s just that it doesn’t bring me joy. I find death to be very, very sad.

Instead, I felt happy at the film’s end because it addressed the awful, painful stuff in relationships. And not just in romantic relationships either. As stated before, the film opens with familial drama that crescendos into Grecian-tragedy.

The film picks apart those things, the questions you have about the people you love, the ways in which they affect you and your life, and the ways in which you affect them. “Midsommar” is like intense therapy, it’s like having slugs suck out the poison of a wound. It’s painful and “intense” would be an understatement.

But by the end of the film, as Dani, who has suffered unimaginable pain; the kind of pain that wakes you up and keeps you up in the middle of a long, sobering night; stares off into a fire, covered in flowers, watching everything burn away. And in that moment I can’t help but feel relieved. It’s masterful. It’s exactly what Aster intended and it works beautifully.

So, now that we all feel better about our painful, painful lives, we’ll talk about next week’s article. Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the moon landing, and three days ago was a full moon. I feel like it’s an utterly appropriate time to talk about THE best* werewolf film of all-time.

*Best is a subjective term, so don’t hate me when I don’t pick “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “Dog Soldiers,” or “Ginger Snaps.”

Richard Foltz
Managing Editor

An explanation of the film’s ending. (Looper/YouTube)

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