HORROR CINEMA HAS BECOME the battleground for a semiotic war, of which the films of Ari Aster, Hereditary (2018) and now Midsommar, are a focal point. It’s even more tedious than it sounds. Let us allow IndieWire’s David Ehrlich to explain: “Ari Aster wants to make one thing perfectly clear: ‘Midsommar’ is a horror movie. The writer-director, whose elegant and soul-scraping ‘Hereditary’ inflamed a semantic debate about the limits of its genre by daring to possess routine tropes with real trauma.” Speaking with Vulture a few months earlier, Aster himself refuted Ehrlich’s claim when discussing Midsommar: “It’s a breakup movie, in the same way that Hereditary is a family tragedy. […] It’s less overtly a horror movie [than Hereditary], but it’s still working in that same space.” The more people try to define what horror is or isn’t, the more the meaning slips away.
Sometime in the last few years, something called “Elevated Horror” emerged in the critical lexicon. No coherent definition has yet been published, nor is its first appearance easily located, but if we judge it based on the films that have been branded with the label (most recently A Quiet Place, Suspiria, and Hereditary), you see a common broad metaphorical underpinning beneath the gore and meager scares. The ’80s gave us slashers, in the ’90s directors rediscovered post-modernism, and the 2000s introduced found footage and torture porn like Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005); now we’re seeing the backlash. Both found footage and torture porn served as ironic counterparts to the increasing dominance of war coverage on TV. As the Iraq War became white noise, these directors ensured we didn’t forget the sight of people dying in ways both intimate and ugly, to quote Lincoln (2012). But now, it seems what critics praise and new directors want to make after the grimness of the torture porn/Bush years are dully pretty parables with no discernible real-world connection and loudly broadcast emotions. Every era gets the subgenre it deserves, and “elevated horror” seems fitting for this moment: foisted on us by no one and lauding movies for debts unpaid. Squint and they could be about anything.
After all, which horror movies are absent “real trauma”? Leap back to what’s widely considered the first “art” film and the first feature-length horror film, Robert Wiene’s 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and you’ll find a potent metaphor for the scars left by World War I. Trauma is the glue that holds franchises like the A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th together; the idea that a malevolent presence is coming for you, has killed your friends and family, and nothing will protect you if it decides it wants you. It’s the idea motivating the killer(s) in eight deeply grotesque and despised Saw movies: if you live through something horrifying, you might learn to appreciate what you’ve got. Survive, then live with it.
Maybe, then, what Ehrlich has trouble with is how the trauma is shown? In Hereditary, Aster gives us the shrieking mood swings of lead Toni Collette after her mother and daughter die within a few weeks of each other. But how is that more profound than how director Rob Zombie shows Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), wailing at her therapist in Halloween II (2009) that she needs medication just to get through the day because of her post-traumatic stress disorder? Or in the same movie when Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) is rendered catatonic after walking into the sight of his maimed daughter behind police tape in a pool of her own blood? Is it a question of style? Zombie is unafraid to wallow in the gory aftermath, to show the looks of terror as characters experience loss, instead of editing through the pain or shooting crying fits like Dutch paintings, as Aster does. Pain is a heavily aestheticized and largely abstract idea in his movies, and by the last reel it’s been rendered useless by circumstance anyway. Once we’ve seen where Aster’s heading, ritualistic bloodletting in both cases, the hours he spends trying to show the turmoil with which his characters live feels as much like an affectation as his cinephilia. The endings of his movies don’t have anything to say about the horrific trauma with which they begin.
The horror genre never had a problem that needed to be solved by someone like Ari Aster. What it has always had is a respectability problem, and the term “elevated horror” is a way to con critics into praising something. Academic studies have never seen the issue with lauding genre cinema, the stabbings and stranglings of Alfred Hitchcock were the subject of lengthy textual studies long before Pauline Kael compared The Exorcist to pornography. John Carpenter and Dario Argento have also been on the receiving end of the university press treatment. It is critics who have historically had a horror problem. Major media outlets did not fantasize about throwing awards at torture porn movies, and there were, one assumes, too few flattering references to the classic cinema by which Aster claims he was inspired. He tells Ehrlich that he was more indebted to Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance (1981) and Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) than to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) or Hostel. In so doing, he may have gotten some reviewers off the scent of his theft of the latter movies’ mechanics, but he can’t paper over the holes in Midsommar with a veneer of borrowed importance. Saying to IndieWire that Midsommar is a film inspired by Sergei Parajanov (!?) instead of someone like Eli Roth encourages reviewers to speak about his work as they would an “art” movie: if we won’t elevate his horror to the level of high art, he’ll do it for us.
Had either Hereditary or Midsommar been released in the ’70s or ’80s, audiences would have been handed vomit bags on their way into the theater. If that sounds derisive, consider that Midsommar’s plot (four Americans go to research a secluded community and get mistreated by their hosts) is also that of Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 found footage forerunner Cannibal Holocaust. It’s the execution that sets Midsommar apart from your typical grindhouse movie, of course. Otherwise it might seem tawdry and xenophobic to foist the usual fear of the Other on a fictitious Swedish cult and their deliberately-inbred-to-the-point-of-Elephantiasis prophet (Levente Puczkó-Smith). If the film had been set in the Southern United States or the jungles of a South American country, how eager would reviewers would be to overlook its excesses?
It may be helpful here to try and draw some kind of separation between the intentions of horror and “art” cinema, because Aster and his critics seems transfixed by the delineation. A handy definition, courtesy of David Bordwell, says art cinema is about “psychological effects in search of causes.” Midsommar is about Dani (Florence Pugh), a twentysomething with no job, interests, or ambitions. Soon after we meet her, she is in the throes of the same all-consuming grief that plagued Collette in Hereditary — they’re even shot crying in the same way, from across a room. Dani experiences an unspeakable family tragedy and then travels with her thoughtless boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), to spend the summer with a Swedish pagan cult. The closer she gets to one, the further she grows from the other, except Aster doesn’t position either Christian or the commune as strong enough forces to warrant their centrality. The movie begins with the worst event of Dani’s life; her boyfriend drifting away from her on vacation can’t begin to compete, but without the grief what is Dani’s journey? A breakup, and Aster didn’t have faith enough in his version of that story to simply shoot it straight, so he adds dueling thesis papers, unimportant side characters, drugs, Jodorowsky-inspired geometric shapes, haunted handicapped children, flashy cinematography, human sacrifice, and Nicolas Cage’s bear-suit from the 2006 Wicker Man remake. The trouble is that none of these elements have anything to do with either Dani’s guilt or her breakup, and they bloat the movie to an unendurable two and a half hours. The Bordwellian “cause” is always right there, reappearing in drug-fueled visions of her trauma. It’s the effects that never arrive. The PTSD is everything we know about Dani, but it’s only ever window dressing for a predetermined horror movie outcome. If the film is about Dani’s acceptance into the cult, shouldn’t it mean more that she prefers it to her boyfriend? If it’s about her relationship, shouldn’t it mean something when she and Christian fall apart? Whatever the case, there is no resonance whatsoever in her being accepted to the cult through challenges so boneheaded they almost seems racist as when Dani is forced to take drugs and dance without falling down. Given an entire culture to create from scratch, Aster’s own Black Narcissus, and this is the best he’s got.
Incidentally the director Aster most resembles is not Michael Powell, Jodorowsky, or even Eli Roth: it’s Mel Gibson, with his pornographic stripping away of innocence, his repulsion and fascination with foreign cultures, his slow-motion build to acts of violence, and his calculated Steadicam shots designed to disorient viewers. Both constantly interrupt scenes of brutality with refractory periods, implicitly asking, “Can you believe what I just did?” Take a scene in Midsommar when Dani and Christian witness a grisly ritual at the commune. Aster lets us know what’s happening through dialogue, then he lines up the shot, slowly marches the characters to their fate, shows Dani’s reaction, and then he cuts to the mangled bodies. Gibson has a similar love for making sure you know what’s coming and then rubbing your nose in it when you decide to watch. Of course Gibson’s blood-spattered Christ-core was an attempt to shock the fear of God into his viewers. If Aster’s movies have a point, he’s hidden it beneath ostentatious technique and empty symbolism. His chosen torments, as with his camera work and editing, have the confident, taut presentation and the unnerving centrality of bold choices, but they’re really just in a bold font.
It’s one thing for Aster to tell people how to think about his movie, but it’s another to not admit when he’s lifted ideas wholesale. He wants us to forget the tradition of horror he belongs to as badly as Dani wants to forget her trauma. He’d rather us not think about the Hostel movies, as they were treated like something most reviewers had stepped in, but Midsommar depicts ugly Americans abroad almost identically. None of this would be quite so egregious if the critical establishment wasn’t similarly eager to forget the past. Empire magazine raves: “[I]t finally reaches a boil in a climax that makes the famous ending of The Wicker Man look like a documentary on the Fyre Festival.” Time Out New York’s review headline boasts that Aster has no peers. History starts today, it seems, and not a minute before.
In the rush to make something better than horror, Aster hasn’t created art — he’s created “art.” Mainstream, feted and fatted, safe. A horror film that couldn’t corrupt the youth is no horror film at all, and this self-important, interminable thing, void of scares, pockmarked with plot holes, replete with smug caricatures it doesn’t have the guts to rejoice in killing, is not horror. It’s nothing. Aster has crafted a movie more about the futility of escaping genre than the desire to escape one’s past. For all his tall talk, he’s still left us a work that uses the language of movies from which he won’t stoop to admit he’s cribbing. The distracting question of the categorization of movies like Midsommar, which can’t even be bothered to scare its audience, ought to be put out of its misery in as bloody a fashion as possible. It would be the first and last real thrill to emerge from an elevated horror movie.