M.L. Miller here! Welcome horror fans to my Annual countdown of the Best of the Best in Horror! Running every day through October, this list will culminate with the best horror film of the year announced on October 31st. Some of these films can be found in theaters—others have unfortunately only seen the light of day On Demand, DVD, BluRay, or digital download. I’ve tried to indicate in the reviews how you can watch and enjoy these films yourselves. I’ll also provide a “Worth Noting” secondary film suggestion in a separate post. These are films that stood out or just missed being on the list by a skosh—a little extra for those who can’t get enough horror.
How did I compile this list? I simply looked through films released between October 1st 2018 and September 30, 2019 and worked and reworked the list until I had the magic number, 31. This countdown is not for the elitists or festival goers, so if the film hasn’t been released to the masses, it won’t be on the list. Also anything released this October will most likely be on next year’s list—so sorry, no films like DOCTOR SLEEP or ZOMBIELAND 2 just yet.
I hope you’ll join me daily and don’t forget to like and share my picks with your pals across the web on your own personal social media. Chime in after the review and let me know what you think of the film, how on the nose or mind-numbingly wrong I am, or most importantly, come up with your own darn list…let’s go!
While I often have issues with Ari Aster’s films, I can’t deny that he is making some truly innovative horror. With two films in the can, he has proven himself to be a rock solid voice in the horror genre and I hope he doesn’t leave it. MIDSOMMAR has its issues, but it still is a fantastically crafted film. I know folks probably might rank this one higher (though I know just as many that wouldn’t rank it at all), but here it rests firmly in the top middle. Released on July 3, 2019, here’s my detailed dissection of MIDSOMMAR! Available on DVD/BluRay, On Demand, & digital download!
Directed by Ari Aster
Written by Ari Aster
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Henrik Norlén, Gunnel Fred, Isabelle Grill, Agnes Westerlund Rase, Julia Ragnarsson, Mats Blomgren, Lars Väringer, Anna Åström, Hampus Hallberg, Liv Mjönes, Louise Peterhoff, Katarina Weidhagen, Björn Andrésen, Tomas Engström, Dag Andersson, Lennart R. Svensson, Anders Beckman, Rebecka Johnston, Tove Skeidsvoll, Anders Back, Anki Larsson, Levente Puczkó-Smith, Frans Rosengarten, Vilmos Kolba, Mihály Kaszás, Gabi Fon, Zsolt Bojári, Klaudia Csányi, Anna Berentz, Austin R. Grant, Balázs Megyeri
Ari Aster has a great movie in him. I just don’t think he’s made it yet. He’s come close. HEREDITARY had some fantastic performances, some shocking scenes, and a thick, true sense of dread in every frame. In many ways, MIDSOMMAR is the same thing. The problem is that it seems Aster hasn’t learned anything from the criticisms of his first feature and sort of doubles down on those mistakes in this one. That said, if you thought HEREDITARY was the bee’s knees, you’re most likely going to feel the same about this one.
MIDSOMMAR is, at its core, a film about a breakup. Or how hard it is for two damaged people to break up. Florence Pugh plays Dani, a college student studying psychology who has quite a few emotional problems on her own. Even before she suffers a devastating tragedy in the opening moments, Dani is fragile, dependent, and unbalanced. We get this information from Dani’s friend who she calls on the phone, and through the friends of her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) who all urge them to split up. After a family tragedy, Dani becomes even more dependent on Christian to the point of guilting the gullible and spineless Christian to get him to invite her on a research vacation to Sweden. While this was supposed to be a vacay with the guys, Dani joins them for a festival in the middle of the countryside that only occurs once every ninety years. Once there and under the influence of drugs, Dani, Christian and the rest begin to realize that all is not as hippy dippy happy as the villagers seem to be on the surface.
The cannibal films of the seventies and eighties got a bad rap because many saw them as fetishizing the native culture and being unsensitive and nationalistic in terms of objectifying and highlighting the otherness of foreign cultures. I find it interesting that this is so with cannibal films, but no one really mentions this while talking about folk land cult horrors like THE WICKER MAN and more recently KILL LIST—both of which are extremely and surprisingly similar in structure to MIDSOMMAR. While it seems that Aster goes to much length to make things look accurate, seeing everything through the eyes of the foreigners highlights to oddity of it all and feels somewhat insensitive in this age of great sensitivity. The scenery is quite beautiful and the few structures that stand in this countryside that has been adopted by this cult are dream-like and surreal with all sorts of odd angles. Adding to the otherness are the paintings, murals, and carvings which reveal the entire storyline if you linger on them long enough. Aster opens with such a mural that basically holds all of the elements at play in this story—something that would resonate more upon second viewing.
And MIDSOMMAR is a gorgeous film. The countryside, the flowing hills, the gorgeously set up camera work highlighting vivid and unearthly reds and yellows against a blue sky which barely dims for nightfall. There are scenes that definitely reflect an attention to every frame as being picturesque and memorable. It’s the type of meticulous work one rarely sees in modern cinema (maybe a Wes Anderson film and most of Kubrick’s stuff) as it really seems as if we are actors move around within the trappings of a painting rather than relying on fancy moving camerawork. There are more scenes than I can count that stand out as truly grotesque while still beautiful. Not an easy feat to accomplish.
The acting as well is phenomenal. While HEREDITARY features a few fantastic performances, MIDSOMMAR relies solely on the slight shoulders of Florence Pugh and boy does she deliver. She goes through a gauntlet of emotions and isn’t afraid to make her character look bad to achieve them. While much of the blame falls on Christian for being so wishy-washy, the crumbling relationship is equally because of Dani’s way of looking past Christian’s faults in order to simply not be alone with her thoughts. The entire trip is an excuse for her to make new memories and try to get away from the tragedy at home. This is not an easy character to play, but Pugh is able to add more depth than one usually sees in films. She most likely will have a grand future given this fantastic performance.
One of the biggest faults of HEREDITARY was that I felt it pulled the pin on the supernatural grenade a bit too late in the film—as if Aster was afraid to show this aspect until it was almost too late to do so. MIDSOMMAR hints at oddness going on very early in the film, so this one at least feels consistent all the way through. And that consistency is in a feeling of tangible dread that fills each scene. Because Pugh’s Dani is so grief stricken and we experience this horror as she does, that heavy feeling of emotional weight dangles over this entire film from the get-go and it’s anticipation for the drop of that weight that kept me on the edge of my seat for much of the film.
Unfortunately, Aster repeats himself—basically repeating the ritual of HEREDITARY in the third act of MIDSOMMAR. But while it took Aster the length of the film to have a circle of naked old ladies chanting in HEREDITARY, Aster relies on pretty much the same kind of ritual for the last half hour of MIDSOMMAR. This was likely to highlight the otherness of the culture these American students find themselves trapped in, but Aster seems to not know when to say when. His overindulgence in this two-and-a-half-hour film is his worst enemy and the film pays for it by being less effective. Scenes that are supposed to be horrific or emotionally shredding are prolonged to almost comic proportions. The audience even laughed a few times during the climax of this all-too-serious horror film and that is definitely not the intention of the filmmaker. The similarity of the ending of this film with THE WICKER MAN and KILL LIST, as well as HEREDITARY to a point, might have been easier to ignore had Aster edited it down. But Aster goes full on here and commits to the bit, leaving it all feel excessive and over-indulgent. Aster either should have had another trusted pair of eyes on this one and even if there was, someone should have told him to pick up the pace, quit smelling his own farts, and just get on with the ending already.
There is quite a lot of squishy and uncomfortable gore in MIDSOMMAR. Again, Aster decides to show it all instead of being more suggestive and brisker. So not only do we see the gore, but it is cut back to and repeated numerous times for shock value—of course, multiple viewings never result in the same shock to the point of it not even resonating anymore. There is a quite horrific opening sequence that is much more suggestive and emotionally scarring than anything the film ends with. I’m still not forgiving this one for repeating the same final act that was found in the most famous cult film ever (THE WICKER MAN). I can’t believe there is even a call back to Nicholas Cage’s bear suit in the so-bad-it’s-amazing remake of THE WICKER MAN and it’s meant to be taken completely seriously. The structure of MIDSOMMAR not only riffs on previous cult films, but it also is almost identical to HEREDITARY. That said, this is a lush and appealing looking film. Pugh is a true find and is sure to go far in the biz. I also commend A4’s ad team for finally smartening up and not saying this is the scariest film since THE EXORCIST as they did with the rest of their recent horror films. It’s a wonderfully made film. But if Aster delivers another one like this, it’s going to smell as if he is simply a one-trick pony repeating the same routine with different window dressing over and over again. Here’s hoping he proves me wrong next time.
THE COUNTDOWN SO FAR…
#12 – MIDSOMMAR
M. L. Miller is a wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of MLMILLERWRITES.COM. Follow @Mark_L_Miller.
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