Hi, it’s me, the guy who hated Hereditary so hard I now own all the Google results for any variation of “Hereditary bad.” I watched Midsommar with my girlfriend, who rented it over my objection that we steal it and reclaim the money A24 will never refund to us. And guess what? I really liked it! I’ve been thinking for a long while now about why Midsommar worked but and Hereditary didn’t, and here are my conclusions.
First, let me say this is a small relief to me, as I wrote the article about Hereditary to puzzle out what everyone else was seeing when I could respect its prowess while despising its effect, and it inadvertently became my most-trafficked post. After all, Ari Aster plainly knows a lot about filmmaking, and like I said in the original post, I don’t want to hate someone’s work when they’ve plainly put a lot of thought into it.
But what became apparent to me very early on was that this is on a lot of points the same film, just with very different trappings and a much better effect.
The plot is basically the same
A survivor utterly devastated by grief after a premature death in the family is marked as special by a friend of a loved one. Studying the friend’s spirituality, they’re drawn into a cult bent on prosperity by any means. Dragged against their will or awareness into a key role, they’re crowned leader of the cult in a bloody moment of apostasy turns them into a complicit member for life.
And so are the flaws
Midsommar, like Hereditary before it, is long. And it could be a lot shorter, as there are numerous scenes that build up well past full tension, and shots that hang out long after they’ve made their point. Instance by instance, this is fine. I’m not going to argue for films to literally cut to the chase at max efficiency. There’s an art to only the essential, but all art is opinion, not fact, and there’s a different art to drawing a moment out, building up more, and giving the heaviness a breather, all of which this movie does.
(In fact, we rewatched the crescendo of Hereditary last week, and it’s still dreadful and exciting. I just wish it had arrived earlier.)
It also pulls more than a little bit from the greats. There are points in both movies where you’re not only aware of what you’ve seen before, but which specific cult movie you’re seeing sampled. But okay, context counts, I guess.
When I was trying to figure out if I was the only sane man in the land of love for Hereditary, one thing that drove me absolutely nuts was the only criticism leveled at it was at the end. Most people who disliked how insane the final 15 minutes were felt it blew out all the delicious tension it had built up by doing cheap, stock horror schtick. Ugh, you nerds will never be happy. All I ask of my horror films is that they show me things which should not be and let me revel in that sense of transgression. (Probably why my personal favorite horror film is more tension than scares, and it’s They Live.) Hereditary puts its ghastly visuals and developments together beautifully. My problem was by the time they happened, I was too exhausted to enjoy them.
Midsommar, too, saves a long, compelling stretch of violations of the natural order for its ending, but this time Aster has the good sense to dole out a few in advance. One could argue the dead brush clearing of the elders equals the smash cut of the head in Hereditary, but the latter was an effective jump scare, whereas the former is an exercise in tension vs. shock.
Speaking of that dialectic twice now, I don’t love Blumhouse horror most of the time, but Jason Blum makes a great distinction between scary and disturbing at the start of this interview, and using Midsommar as an example. He also has an infectious enthusiasm for movies that’s worth indulging in:
What have we learned?
Do wrong right
Aster is very good at depicting very wrong things, both in imagery and ideas. By Hereditary‘s final third, I was too exhausted to care when all the grotesque blasphemies depicted an inverted world at last. I like a little bit of that doled out to me for atmospherics along the way. Midsommar does it better (but almost too long) with fundamentally wrong spectacles that churn the stomach and the mind…and even make one oddly sad?
The perversity of those mummies — so recently young and vibrant — rendered small and sad, respectfully arranged by their murderers, felt far, far more egregious than any chains and hooks Eli Roth ever rendered.
It’s a very good horror film. I think it’s much better apportionment, allotment, distribution–call it what you want–of all the same elements.
It’s not the (lack of) jump scares
One lazy defense from people who loved Hereditary was that American audiences are uncurious, that we want to be spoon-fed our horror, and that we’re used to jump scares from Blumhouse films with titles like Insipid.
In essence: “you’re stupid and you wouldn’t get it.” The fact is that this argument ignores what Hereditary‘s detractors were actually saying, and is itself, ironically, lazy.
Look a jump scare is the fart joke of horror movies. You can use it for a laugh so easy it’s a turn-off to anyone who isn’t simple in their tastes, or you can combine it with some kind of meaning to quickly catch people off-guard in a way that furthers their experience. It’s the difference between a must-click headline and a clickbait headline. They can use the exact same configuration, but what happens once you engage with it?
Questions I still have after watching Midsommar
Who was wearing Mark’s face?
You may think it’s Reuben, but Reuben is asleep on a cot in the library when “Mark” enters. Also, whoever hammers Josh is standing in the corner (you can see them when the camera rotates right quickly to reveal Mark’s face), so Chidi must have been really engrossed in his academic studies to miss two assailants.
Sidebar: also recently watched William Jackson harper in They Remain — maybe not a horror film, but pretty good? I dunno, it feels like it fizzles a bit, but also like there’s a lot of good cerebral understory to this, since everything else is so well designed and acted. I wouldn’t put it on the top of my October watchlist, but the actors do great work with it if you like that aspect of cinema foremost. There’s a good theory about the true nature of the film here.
How does Dani learn Swedish?
Or does she even? The film takes on unreliable subjective perspective as she starts tripping, so it’s possible that she thinks she’s conversing and understanding. The important thing is she’s part of it now by completing the dance. It ties her to these people, but not the way they expect. But is it also a confirmation the magic is real?
It’s a question that needs no answer, and the bleating is just part of that shared emotional expression this commune does throughout the film.
Anyway, I’m happy that Midsommar acts as a bogey on Hereditary. It makes me feel less like a crazy man or a kneejerk hater [pause for SEO malarkey, dear reader, and pretend this essay ends here. Okay, here we go, to satisfy the bots:] to analyze why Midsommar worked, but Hereditary didn’t.