Among the many witches who raised me, the three pillars of “Pagan cinema” have been The Wicker Man (1973), The Rocky Horror Image Show (1975), and The Wizard of Oz (1939). These have been the movies we performed at parties, the movies whose characters we dressed as for Halloween, the movies whose strains we quoted to at least one one other ad nauseum once the rituals and feasts have been by means of for the night. “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” I couldn’t inform you who the voice saying the road in my head belongs to – Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West, or my very own mom.
These have been strange movies for us to adore. I recall a Wicker Man viewing at one among our festivals. I consider I was on the cusp of adulthood on the time, 16 or 17, watching my Pagan family while they watched the movie’s finale, where a ring of Summerisle denizens cheer and sing whereas the dour Christian, Sergeant Howie, is burned alive inside the titular wicker man. My family sang along, the phrases to the Middle English round “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 wood anew;
When the movie was over, I, all-knowing teenager that I was, started to berate them. “How can you sit there, singing? It’s a horror film, for gods’ sakes. They burned that man alive.”
They rolled their eyes at me, wondering 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 anybody to cheer for at all.
I didn’t understand it then, but I came 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 Wicked Witch – have been the villains of the piece, however they have been closest we might find to illustration in film. As members of the counterculture we weren’t minimize out to function protagonists, but typically a movie would come along 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 until the objects turned the themes, until Howie turned the villain and the Summerisle Pagans the heroes.
I’ll admit, this by no means actually sat nicely with me. I nonetheless can’t watch The Wicker Man with those eyes, and once I finally saw Rosemary’s Baby (1968) in my 20s, the presence of all those Wiccan signifiers – the esbats and the pentagrams – unnerved greater than thrilled me. I blame it on being a second-generation Pagan: being brought up in the Pagan world from the start, I never fairly discovered my elders’ survival methods.
I’ve made my peace with my mother and father and their embrace of Summerisle. One of the causes we watch horror movies is the pleasure of transgression, and watching Howie burn remains one of many few locations in movie where a Pagan viewers can confidently say “our people” received one over on “their people.” Is it horrific? Positive – however it’s additionally the perfect we will anticipate while “they” are the ones making the photographs.
One merely can’t watch Ari Aster’s new film, Midsommar, without considering of Robin Hardy’s basic. The essential shape of the plot is almost similar between the two films: an outsider is invited into a wierd and reclusive Pagan group, where the spiritual ceremonies of the villagers turn out to be over the course of the film increasingly more befuddling and disturbing, coming to an awful – but inevitable – climax of pain, dying, and (spoilers, I suppose) hearth. Similarly, they share in the stylistic selection referred to as “daylight horror” – a version of the genre where, somewhat 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 shade underneath the sunshine of the sun. However beneath the surface, the two movies diverge, especially for a Pagan viewers. I don’t anticipate we’ll see the same sort of transgressive cheering at the climax of Midsommar in years to return.
The movie facilities round Dani (Florence Pugh), a graduate scholar in psychology (“so you know I’m crazy,” as she says, an admission of the movie’s comfort with utilizing psychological illness as a crutch in its pursuit of horror.) She has an extended but 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 event that echoes all through the remainder of the film. Christian, who had been on the verge of leaving her prior to the news, remains together with her more out of resignation than commitment. When one in every of his buddies, a Swedish scholar named Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), gives Christian and his grad faculty buddies an opportunity to visit the commune where he grew up during a once-in-a-century midsummer pageant, Christian agrees with out even discussing it with Dani. When she finds out, he invitations her along, and to the dismay of himself and his (all-male) cohort, she agrees.
What follows is a trip – in multiple senses of the phrase – into a world that seems at first to be bucolic and arcadian, especially 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. Indeed, runes are in all places to be discovered: stitched into clothes, carved into wooden and stone, and even discovered in the association of tables and chairs for the feasts that appear to occur regularly in the village. The camerawork is likely one of the primary points of interest to the film, and the combination of pure imagery and Pagan handiwork that always fills the display is beautiful and painterly. It also serves to make the unflinching brutality of the violence all the extra ghastly.
As one expects, over the course of the movie, there’s demise and dismemberment in retailer for the outsiders, who are picked off one-by-one. Some meet their fates as punishment for his or her transgressions, in typical horror type, whereas others appear to satisfy more arbitrary ends, until solely Dani and Christian are left, each of them drawn deep into the online of the midsummer rites. It’s left to Dani to make an terrible selection in the movie’s last sequence, which serves as an inscrutable assertion on misogyny, trauma, or acceptance into a group, depending on how one reads it.
Something appeared off to me as I watched the final 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 tale of strange Pagan cultists entrancing after which devouring naive outsiders here, despite that being the essential plot of each movies. I was definitely nonetheless bothered, however in a unique course. It took a number of hours of consideration earlier than I came to a conclusion about what felt totally different about this specific “Pagan horror film.”
In The Wicker Man, the central relationship is between Sgt. Howie and Lord Summerisle, the latter so memorably played by Christopher Lee. There’s a sense of philosophical debate between the 2. Although Lord Summerisle is the film’s antagonist, he is allowed some measure of subjectivity – he’s a personality that the viewers comes to know as an individual, someone 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 figure, one foot within the outdoors world and the opposite in Hårga, and in any case, he principally drops out of the movie once the ceremonies start to take their ultimate flip. In addition to him, the opposite Swedish villagers are utter ciphers with about as much individuality as a bee in a hive. At meals, they stare straight forward, unspeaking, till given a cue to toast or eat. They take no actions that are not in unison, a fact which extends past their dining practices, into their sexual mores, and sleeping habits.
Even the overall cycle of their lives happens in lockstep: each individual in Hårga divides their lives into four 18-year divisions of childhood, pilgrimage, working life, and elderhood. What occurs to the one that decides to stay in accordance with one other rhythm? There isn’t a reply: being a horror movie, one expects the bloodiest response, however that seems at odds with how the Hårgans view themselves.
It’s this lack of individuality – of personhood – that I find most disturbing 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 imagine projecting myself onto the villagers in Midsommar. The film regards the villagers as set dressing greater than as a group with a logical (if horrific) perception system. Combined with the one-dimensionality of a lot of the lead characters, the result’s a film that, while superbly shot, finally feels hollow. (The exception to this is Florence Pugh’s performance as Dani, a raw, heart-tearing embodiment of grief and isolation.)
As anyone who grew up discomforted with the state of “Pagan cinema,” I entered Midsommar hoping to see a film that took the tropes of the isolated Pagan group in a new path. Unfortunately, the film ends up feeling like a regression. What is “Pagan” here is completely object; in contrast to different films, there isn’t any room for us to find a place for ourselves as subjects. There may be rather a lot for a Pagan viewers to understand in Midsommar’s imagery, nevertheless it’s another movie that only cares about what happens to its token Christian.