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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

After two feature-directing credits, it’s safe to declare writer-director Ari Aster a master of horror. Midsommar, the sophomore effort after his masterpiece Hereditary, is 2 1/2 hours of nerve-fraying terror, staged mostly in broad daylight—and it’s a thing of demented beauty.

Dani (Florence Pugh, who is dynamite) and Christian (Jack Reynor, who is excellent) are having relationship issues. Dani is super-dependent on Christian during a major time of need; her sister is constantly bombarding her with toxic emails. Christian halfheartedly provides what he tries to pass off as sage advice, but his heart isn’t in it—and he’s starting to think a break-up might make sense.

Tragedy then strikes Dani’s family, and it’s time for Christian to step up. His solution? Take Dani along on what was supposed to be a bro trip to Sweden for a traditional family summer festival. He sort of asks her to go; she sort of says yes; and before you know it, Dani is on a plane to Sweden with Christian and his friends.

Christian’s crew consists of Mark (the always-good Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper) and the resident Swede, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the smiley-faced dude who suggested the trip. His family is at the core of the festival, and he can’t wait to show his pals their idea of a good time.

Shortly after arriving, Dani and friends ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms. The weirdness kicks in immediately—and the movie comes off as a really bad trip. Take note of the paintings on the walls throughout the film; they provide fun hints of the terrors to come. When two elderly members of the happy tribe show a sick form of commitment to the festival, it’s an act that would make reasonable people flee. However … Christian and Pelle are doing a thesis for school, so they write off the strange goings-on as “tribal” and stick around until the very end. Bad, bad call.

That end is a real scorcher, a final testament to lousy significant others. Pugh, so good in this year’s Fighting With My Family, makes a grand statement with this movie: She’s an acting force. She puts everything on the table, and it pays off in a performance that will surely be one of the year’s most memorable (as was Toni Collette’s lead performance in last year’s Hereditary). Chris Pratt-lookalike Reynor is a well-placed and sound counterpart, but this is Pugh’s show.

One of the pleasures of Midsommar is that it’s obvious where things are going. Lots of clues are put right in front of your face as the sun shines brightly. While the movie is a deliberately paced slow burn, the 2 1/2 hours go by pretty quickly. Aster never loses the sense of dread, so while you could call the movie predictable in some ways, it’s not anything resembling a letdown. It’s a movie that constantly delivers on the dread it promises in its every frame.

According to Aster, he was going through his own dark relationship issues when putting this film together. I feel very sorry for the person on the other side of that relationship. Aster’s dark soul runs very deep, and he’s a great writer. Some poor soul had their ass handed to them in the final email exchanges.

Midsommar stands as a nice companion piece to Hereditary. I see myself enduring a delightfully miserable double-feature in the near future and purposefully bumming myself out—because, you know, that’s why we watch horror films. Aster has a way of putting a lot of pain and nightmare fuel on the screen while somehow making it all very entertaining. As he did last year, he’s made one of 2019’s best films.

Midsommar is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

A family gets its proverbial ass viciously kicked in Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster’s more-than-impressive feature debut. This is a horror movie that will bruise your brain, make your blood run cold, and stay in your system well after you’ve left the theater.

Annie (an incredible Toni Collette) has just lost her controlling, creepy mother. Annie has some control issues of her own, which sometimes manifests itself in her creation of miniature models—often depicting her home life with husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne, doing his best work in years), son Peter (an impressive Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, who will break your heart). While every member of the family seems to be earnest and decent, they are also dysfunctional—with a capital “D.”

The loss of her mom, the pressure of an upcoming show of her miniatures, and the demands of parenthood have Annie on edge, to the point where she seeks counseling. At a support group for people mourning the recent loss of loved ones, Annie meets Joan (the remarkable Ann Dowd), a surprisingly cheery woman who has recently lost her son.

When tragedy strikes, Annie finds herself leaning on Joan a little more, to the point where she accepts teachings on how to do a séance and communicate with the recently departed. Annie does a couple of rituals at her house, and it all seems innocent enough—until creepy apparitions start appearing, and malevolent spirits start messing things up for Peter, who responds by hitting the bong.

The movie is a ghost story, a demon story and a witch story rolled into one, with elements of The Witch, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and, yes, The Sixth Sense. (That vibe owes a lot to the presence of Sixth Sense star Collette.) It’s also one of the more powerful depictions of a family falling apart in years, giving this excursion into horror an extra layer of depth.

The creeping dread factor starts early in Hereditary and never lets up. Aster proves to be a master of atmospheric scares, relying less upon jolts and gore, and more upon lingering shots in dark corners where you can sort of make out a ghost staring at you. Everything works up to a frightening puzzler of a finale that might have you initially asking, “WTF?” but eventually thinking, “Oh … that’s some messed-up shit right there.”

Collette is stunning as Annie, a seemingly decent person who reveals a lot of mommy issues as things unfold. Annie isn’t an openly bad person, but as the demons start to manifest, and her mother’s crimes boil to the surface, she becomes an epically bad mom. Collette mixes a quiet, withdrawn demeanor with moments of visceral, outward nastiness. Collette makes every step of this tormented mom’s unfortunate journey mesmerizing.

Wolff, building up a great career with solid turns in Patriots Day, My Friend Dahmer and Jumanji: Welcome to Jungle, gives an incredibly raw, emotionally jarring performance as the son who doubts his mom and craves stability. The destruction of his home life coincides with his transition to manhood, and puberty supremely sucks for this guy. Wolff has moments in this movie when he seems so realistically disturbed that the movie feels like a documentary.

With Hereditary, Aster gives the horror genre the kind of film that will be around for years. It has some images (Does anything suck more than a smiling ghost?) that will haunt your dreams. It also has an enveloping darkness that will leave you perhaps a bit unsettled and on edge.

Hereditary is as unpleasant as they come—and as a horror-movie fan, I say amen to that.

Hereditary is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews