‘Midsommar’ And The Rise Of Folk Horror
It must be frustrating for Adam Scovell. Having written a fascinating and insightful volume called ‘Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange’, along has come the mother of all films folk-horrorish.
Folk horror has always existed in some form or another, from spots where runic symbols are carved to rural areas of supposed mystical significance. It was reborn from the writings of MR James, Alan Garner, Nigel Kneale and the like, and jumped into film. The genre classics include ‘Witchfinder General’, ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ and ‘A Field In England’ but there are many others combining elements of myth, rural lore and pastoral strangeness. It’s very British, but I would argue for future studies to include rural folk myths of America. Scovell’s book looks at Australian similarities too, in films like ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’, ‘Walkabout’ and how the landscape magnifies toxic masculinity in ‘Wake In Fright’.
Now comes ‘Midsommar’ from director Ari Aster, whose claustrophobic, dread-filled ‘Hereditary’ channeled ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, yet was its own beast. I had a problem with that film’s pay-off, jumping into full-blown wigged-out supernatural madness, whereas a similarly set up film, ‘Kill List’, brought events to a more organic and natural conclusion.
Well, this time director Aster is paying close homage to ‘The Wicker Man’, with distinct differences. In keeping with today’s self-obsessed times, the film is about a relationship breaking down in extremis rather than the bigger issue of christianity VS paganism. In ‘The Wicker Man’ Lord Summerisle’s crops failed and the lie could not be maintained, but in Hälsingland, where ‘Midsommar’ is set, it’s not about lying to the community – here the community unites to heal and save itself.
Plot-wise there’s not much to work with. Four friends go on an anthropological trip to Sweden. Dani is traumatised by her family’s inexplicable demise and it seems that her nice but wavering boyfriend may soon dump her, encouraged by his good-time mates. In the rural North the awkwardly mismatched quartet arrive at an idyllic commune, part-Amish, part Woodstock, where the butterfly-filled fields are bedecked with flower garlands, maypoles, folk art, singing, open-air dining, white smocks and benign pagan rituals.
A key element of folk horror involves sacrifice for the greater good, and so it proves here. Soon there are disturbing elements that appear unusual to outsiders, to say the least, including an age limit on life-spans and an over-reliance on herbal highs. And what’s in the temple they’ve built? It has to be something bad because it echoes the tree house in ‘Hereditary’, even though it’s painted sunflower yellow. The community’s rules are ultimately intelligent and cohesive, and the film is suffused with a woozy psychedelic slow-burn that’s genuinely disorienting. Flowers pulsate, the landscape shifts and the true meaning of ‘commune’ is learned…
Unlike ‘Hereditary’, ‘Midsommar’ builds to an outcome you’ve seen coming for most of its (very long) running time, but its slow inevitability makes you dread it all the more. After it’s over, you look back and realise that it was not a horror film at all, but something completely different.
Still, there are a couple of plot wrinkles I’d love to discuss with someone!