The Handbook
The Handbook

We’re all a little scared of the dark. 

That’s why when we venture into the cold, bleak world of the cinema to watch a horror film (or when our friends drag us along), it can feel like we’re really being launched straight into a pack of hungry wolves– or demonic entities, or haunted houses, or deranged axe-murderers, yada yada, whatever’s on the menu for the day. 

When the lights come down, our heart rates shoot up. Our popcorn, if not launched into the air, is often our only line of self defense and distraction. We shovel it into our mouths while we cover our eyes and ears, wondering why we ever even paid for a ticket. But hey, at least by now we always know what to expect from a scary flick, um, right?

What happens when a film comes along that denies all of the horror movie giveaways we’ve come to know and loathe? When it’s as bright and beautiful as it is dark and disturbing? When a horror movie is essentially dressed up as an idyllic fantasy? Absolute mayhem, that’s what. 

Midsommar, like the finest bouquets of summer roses, is lush, colourful and deeply romanticised… but just a little further down the vine it will shred you to pieces. 

A fairytale of sorts for perverts (as the director, Ari Aster, himself has dubbed it) Midsommar borrows way too much imagery from our favourite Disney princess classics for comfort. Toying with audience expectations (or rather shredding them as easily as the flower petals littering the film), Midsommar will leave unsuspecting viewers dazed, disgusted and more than a bit confused by the end of its runtime. 

Directed by the filmmaker behind last year’s visceral Hereditary – a warning in itself – the film follows the fantastical and eerie pilgrimage of a couple on the rocks to Sweden. Dani, our protagonist, travels with her boyfriend and his friends to visit the fabled province of Hälsingland to witness the local midsummer festivities. This year’s celebration is particularly special. Apparently, they only do it every 90 years, so they’ve gotta make this one count, right?

Anyway, when Dani and Co. arrive to the tight-knit, middle-of-nowhere commune (red flag #1), they’re greeted with open arms and several handfuls of what are essentially hallucinogenic mushrooms (red flag #2).   

As you might expect, everything’s just peachy until things start going bump in the… day? 

Midsommar takes place almost entirely in the summer-soaked hues of daylight, making us petrified of the blooming daytime too. After all, in Sweden this time of year, there’s hardly any darkness at all. You might think this creative choice would tame down the insanity of the events to follow, but you’d be wrong. Because everything taking place here is “hidden” in plain sight, right before our defenceless eyes, there’s never any hemming, hawing or hiding of any sort – just straight up horror. 

The plot descends gradually into gruelling madness. Smiling villagers in long, flowing white garments dance before us as summer solstice traditions melt away into pagan rituals. Tensions run high, coinciding with the rising of heartbeats and the spilling of innocent blood – all elegantly paired with a stomach-lurching musical score, unraveling underneath the terrible, brilliant magnifying glass of the summer sun. 

There are no skeletons in this closet. In Midsommar, they are adorned with flower crowns and hurled decoratively across the screen. They are lit ablaze, presented to us as gifts. And we’re asked to sit and watch it (or like most, hide behind your box of extra large popcorn but who’s checking?). 

This film is pretty gutsy, so much so that by the end it’s hard to tell what we just witnessed, or how on earth we made it to the end. Somehow though, and try to suspend your disbelief here, I kind of loved it. You may think I’m crazy and I probably am. But before you hoist my body into the flames along with the other Midsommar victims (or worse, stop reading this review!), hear me out. 

This picture, as bewildering and gruesome as it is, provides remarkable commentary and insight into the traumas of a character’s life. When given a little thought (or when you’ve finished reading all the explanations you can find online) you’ll realise there are some interesting thematic elements to be revealed underneath the surface– about love that turns toxic, the profound discovery of belonging, and the burdens our loved ones are incapable of bearing for us.

In some twisted way, Midsommar has quite a beautiful message. Of course, none of that matters when you’re hiding your eyes the whole time from the grins of the murderous villagers. But hey, if that’s your cup of tea, that’s your cup of tea. Just don’t, er, eat the mushrooms. 

Check out this horror show in cinemas now,

Image Credit: A24