Among the many witches who raised me, the three pillars of “Pagan cinema” have been The Wicker Man (1973), The Rocky Horror Image Present (1975), and The Wizard of Oz (1939). These have been the movies we performed at events, the movies whose characters we dressed as for Halloween, the movies whose strains we quoted to at least one one other advert nauseum as soon as the rituals and feasts have been via for the night. “Are you a great witch, or a nasty witch?” I couldn’t inform you who the voice saying the road in my head belongs to – Margaret Hamilton’s Depraved Witch of the West, or my very own mom.
These have been unusual movies for us to adore. I recall a Wicker Man viewing at considered one of our festivals. I consider I used to be on the cusp of maturity on the time, 16 or 17, watching my Pagan household whereas they watched the movie’s finale, the place a hoop of Summerisle denizens cheer and sing whereas the dour Christian, Sergeant Howie, is burned alive inside the titular wicker man. My household sang alongside, the phrases to the Center English spherical “Sumer is Icumen In” springing calmly from their lips:
Sumer is Icumen in,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grows the seed and blows the mead,
And comes the wooden anew;
When the movie was over, I, all-knowing teenager that I used to be, started to berate them. “How are you going to sit there, singing? It’s a horror movie, for gods’ sakes. They burned that man alive.”
They rolled their eyes at me, questioning how I might defend such a sexless Puritan killjoy like Sgt. Howie. And in addition to, they stated, if we will’t cheer for the dangerous guys in films like this, we gained’t have anyone to cheer for in any respect.
I didn’t perceive it then, however I got here to, afterward: in The Wicker Man, and even in Rocky Horror and The Wizard of Oz, the characters we recognized ourselves with – Lord Summerisle and his villagers, Dr. Frank N. Furter, the Depraved Witch – have been the villains of the piece, however they have been closest we might discover to illustration in movie. As members of the counterculture we weren’t minimize out to function protagonists, however typically a movie would come together with an antagonist who reminded us of ourselves.
To the remainder of the world we have been objects – of curiosity, of contempt, of lust, of worry – and that was mirrored within the obtainable cinema; however we discovered to take that goal gaze and reorient it till the objects turned the themes, till Howie turned the villain and the Summerisle Pagans the heroes.
I’ll admit, this by no means actually sat properly with me. I nonetheless can’t watch The Wicker Man with these eyes, and once I lastly noticed Rosemary’s Child (1968) in my 20s, the presence of all these Wiccan signifiers – the esbats and the pentagrams – unnerved greater than thrilled me. I blame it on being a second-generation Pagan: being introduced up within the Pagan world from the start, I by no means fairly discovered my elders’ survival methods.
I’ve made my peace with my mother and father and their embrace of Summerisle. One of many causes we watch horror movies is the pleasure of transgression, and watching Howie burn stays one of many few locations in movie the place a Pagan viewers can confidently say “our individuals” obtained one over on “their individuals.” Is it horrific? Positive – however it’s additionally the perfect we will anticipate whereas “they” are those making the photographs.
One merely can’t watch Ari Aster’s new movie, Midsommar, with out considering of Robin Hardy’s basic. The important form of the plot is almost equivalent between the 2 movies: an outsider is invited into a wierd and reclusive Pagan group, the place the spiritual ceremonies of the villagers develop into over the course of the movie increasingly more befuddling and disturbing, coming to an terrible – however inevitable – climax of ache, dying, and (spoilers, I suppose) hearth. Equally, they share within the stylistic selection referred to as “daylight horror” – a model of the style the place, relatively than counting on the dread of ready for one thing to strike from the shadows, all the grotesquery and violence performs out in brilliant, vivid colour beneath the sunshine of the solar. However beneath the floor, the 2 movies diverge, particularly for a Pagan viewers. I don’t anticipate we’ll see the identical sort of transgressive cheering on the climax of Midsommar in years to return.
The movie facilities round Dani (Florence Pugh), a graduate scholar in psychology (“so you already know I’m loopy,” as she says, an admission of the movie’s consolation with utilizing psychological sickness as a crutch in its pursuit of horror.) She has an extended however loveless relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), who research anthropology. Christian is self-absorbed, a narcissist who gaslights Dani into dependency upon him after which resents her for it.
Midsommar begins with a surprising opening sequence through which Dani learns of the murder-suicide of her mother and father by the hands of her bipolar sister (see above, relating to psychological sickness), an occasion that echoes all through the remainder of the movie. Christian, who had been on the verge of leaving her previous to the information, stays together with her extra out of resignation than dedication. When considered one of his pals, a Swedish scholar named Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), provides Christian and his grad faculty buddies an opportunity to go to the commune the place he grew up throughout a once-in-a-century midsummer pageant, Christian agrees with out even discussing it with Dani. When she finds out, he invitations her alongside, and to the dismay of himself and his (all-male) cohort, she agrees.
What follows is a visit – in a number of senses of the phrase – right into a world that appears at first to be bucolic and arcadian, particularly to my Heathen eyes: the village of Hårga, depicted within the everlasting honey-light of the Nordic summer time, is beautiful, resplendent with flowers and maypoles on the surface, murals and runic patterns on the within. Certainly, runes are all over the place to be discovered: stitched into clothes, carved into wooden and stone, and even discovered within the association of tables and chairs for the feasts that appear to occur regularly within the village. The camerawork is likely one of the important points of interest to the movie, and the combination of pure imagery and Pagan handiwork that always fills the display is beautiful and painterly. It additionally serves to make the unflinching brutality of the violence all of the extra ghastly.
As one expects, over the course of the movie, there’s demise and dismemberment in retailer for the outsiders, who’re picked off one-by-one. Some meet their fates as punishment for his or her transgressions, in typical horror fashion, whereas others appear to satisfy extra arbitrary ends, till solely Dani and Christian are left, every of them drawn deep into the online of the midsummer rites. It’s left to Dani to make an terrible selection within the movie’s ultimate sequence, which serves as an inscrutable assertion on misogyny, trauma, or acceptance right into a group, relying on how one reads it.
One thing appeared off to me as I watched the ultimate photographs play within the theater, a sequence that extensively quotes The Wicker Man. I didn’t have the identical sense of being unnerved by one other story of unusual Pagan cultists entrancing after which devouring naive outsiders right here, regardless of that being the important plot of each movies. I used to be definitely nonetheless bothered, however in a special path. It took a couple of hours of consideration earlier than I got here to a conclusion about what felt totally different about this specific “Pagan horror movie.”
In The Wicker Man, the central relationship is between Sgt. Howie and Lord Summerisle, the latter so memorably performed by Christopher Lee. There’s a sense of philosophical debate between the 2. Though Lord Summerisle is the movie’s antagonist, he’s allowed some measure of subjectivity – he’s a personality that the viewers involves know as an individual, somebody we will type an opinion about.
There isn’t any equal character in Midsommar. Pelle, who introduced the graduate college students to the commune, sometimes tries to make his motives recognized, however from the start he’s forged as a liminal determine, one foot within the outdoors world and the opposite in Hårga, and in any case, he principally drops out of the movie as soon as the ceremonies start to take their ultimate flip. In addition to him, the opposite Swedish villagers are utter ciphers with about as a lot individuality as a bee in a hive. At meals, they stare straight ahead, unspeaking, till given a cue to toast or eat. They take no actions that aren’t in unison, a fact which extends previous their eating practices, into their sexual mores, and sleeping habits.
Even the general cycle of their lives occurs in lockstep: each individual in Hårga divides their lives into 4 18-year divisions of childhood, pilgrimage, working life, and elderhood. What occurs to the one that decides to reside based on one other rhythm? There isn’t any reply: being a horror movie, one expects the bloodiest response, however that appears at odds with how the Hårgans view themselves.
It’s this lack of individuality – of personhood – that I discover most annoying concerning the movie, and it’s the rationale that, in contrast to Wicker Man (and positively in contrast to the playful camp of the “villains” in Rocky Horror and Wizard of Oz), I can’t think about projecting myself onto the villagers in Midsommar. The movie regards the villagers as set dressing greater than as a group with a logical (if horrific) perception system. Mixed with the one-dimensionality of a lot of the lead characters, the result’s a movie that, whereas superbly shot, finally feels hole. (The exception to that is Florence Pugh’s efficiency as Dani, a uncooked, heart-tearing embodiment of grief and isolation.)
As someone who grew up discomforted with the state of “Pagan cinema,” I entered Midsommar hoping to see a movie that took the tropes of the remoted Pagan group in a brand new course. Sadly, the movie finally ends up feeling like a regression. What’s “Pagan” right here is completely object; in contrast to different movies, there isn’t a room for us to discover a place for ourselves as topics. There could also be rather a lot for a Pagan viewers to understand in Midsommar’s imagery, however it’s one other movie that solely cares about what occurs to its token Christian.