In this episode of my podcast, Dr Johnny Walker joins me to talk about the book he is writing about the video rental boom of the 1970s and 1980s in Britain. We talk about how home video impacted the film industry in terms of new market opportunities, influencing future filmmakers, and also its effect on Britain’s working class and South Asian communities.
Below are my thoughts on Ari Aster’s Midsommar. There are mild spoilers.
Midsommar is Ari Aster’s second wholly wonderful horror film, coming after last year’s Hereditary. It shares with his debut feature some stylistic, tonal, and thematic similarities. It stars Florence Pugh as Dani, who is coming to terms with a family tragedy and bereavement. So like Hereditary, the camera lingers on a character struggling with the aftermath of severe grief. Aster includes a very similar moment to one of the most affecting scenes in Hereditary, of Dani howling in anguish and being comforted by her partner after she has just received the most dreadful news.
It also includes some shocking and unexpected edits to close ups of deformed faces – both dead and alive, and there are several moments of blunt force trauma that are, if anything, more severe than that of the head collision in Hereditary.
The film is also about a cult/close community. But whereas Hereditary disguised this twist and revealed that it had been about a cult only at the climax, Midsommar‘s structure stays strictly within the formula of the folk horror movie/film about a cult from the beginning – using The Wicker Man as its template. (Though with its emphasis on flowers as a motif, May Queens, and with an errant boyfriend who is sexually tempted by other women in the community, it reminded me more of Robin Hardy’s belated, and maligned, follow-up, The Wicker Tree). That it sticks so closely to the Wicker Man‘s structure is not a criticism. The pleasure to be had in these films is the slow building of tension, and increasing weirdness, with the audience understanding exactly where it is all leading – typically to a final orgy of excess.
One way Midsommar foreshadows this eventual spill over into excess is through depicting tapestries and paintings hanging on walls that hint at some necessary bloodletting to come. Though one moment depicted in a tapestry, that recalls some disturbing self harm familiar from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, never arrives on screen for real.
Midsommar leads exactly where you expect it to (if you are familiar with this sort of film), and this is its strength. Aster plays with horror convention, but is not afraid to be formulaic where necessary, so part of the enjoyment is in seeing how those moments you know are coming are about to be delivered. And, also like his first movie, Midsommar is hilarious as well as being genuinely emotionally affecting (though the grief depicted in this film isn’t as impactful. There is no drama as effective as the dinner scene in Hereditary, for example). The humour comes in a couple of very funny one-liners as well as in its moments of pure absurdity.
With only a couple of hours of daylight in the fictional community (supposedly Sweden), most of what we see is set in bright sunshine. Aster’s camera continually shifts perspective, from very high angles, shots that are upside down, and point of views (including of eyelids being closes). Later on he uses shots that are either super imposed or long cross dissolves (I will have to watch it again to see). The effect is frequently hallucinatory, to which the diegetic folk soundtrack contributes.
Overall, this is superb piece of horror, at once original and familiar.
I recently attended the Prince Charles Cinema’s all night movie marathon of the teen horror movies, consisting of The Craft (Andrew Fleming 1996), Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997), Urban Legend (Jamie Banks, 1997), The Faculty (Robert Rodriguez, 1998), and Final Destination (James Wong, 2000).
Though I was familiar with each film, bar Final Destination, which I had only seen part of previously, it was a fascinating process to watch them back to back. In particular, while their self-awareness and reflexivity was always evident, it was only when watching them together that the full extent of how much they converge, correspond, and play off each other became fully apparent. (I am not claiming that this is an original thought – clearly the PCC had thought this through already).
Firstly, Kevin Williamson is the writer of three of the six, Scream, I Know…, and The Faculty. Urban Legend also contains a link to Williamson, it stars Joshua Jackson from the TV series Dawson’s Creek which Williamson wrote. One of the jokes in the film is a reference to Jackson’s role in the series (this had to be pointed out to me since it was a reference I didn’t get).
The casting cleverly bleeds over between films. Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich featured in The Craft before taking the two leads in Scream. I Know… stars Sarah Michelle Geller, and Urban Legend‘s masked killer is revealed as Rebecca Gayheart, both of which appear in Williamson’s Scream 2 (not shown on this night). I Know… also stars Jennifer Love Hewitt, and one of The Faculty‘s early intertextual gags has the character of Zeke (Josh Hartnett) flogging bootleg video tapes from the back of his car claiming they contain nude scenes of Campbell and Hewitt. So, while each film demonstrates an awareness of horror, Sci-Fi, and and other movie conventions, they are also dependent upon each other – referencing their immediate predecessors and competitors.
It was also interesting to note how the films from this cycle that made the most impact on the sell out audience were those that demonstrated the greater self-reflexivity. The Craft, Scream, and The Faculty, whose narratives are dependent on self-aware and movie literate characters, received the most vocal and tangible responses from the knowledgeable crowd.
Perhaps the biggest surprise and disappointment from the cycle is that The Faculty never led to further sequels, unlike what happened to lesser films. It deserved to become a successful franchise. For those who haven’t seen it, you would have to go a long way to find a more enjoyable ensemble movie. The stand out scene comes early, when each of the utterly engaging teen characters is introduced in a sequence of terrific swagger and maximum narrative economy. For me, it is probably Rodriguez’s best few moments of screen direction.
The Nun is the latest film in The Conjuring franchise, and the second spin-off strand after Annabelle and its sequel. Out of the five existing movies it is the first in chronological order (set in 1952), and there are top and tail moments which provide the necessary link to the other films. (Plus, the lead is played by Taissa Farmiga, sister to Vera, who plays a major character in the others).
Farmiga is a novice nun called Irene, who, along with Father Burke (Demian Bichir), is sent by the Vatican to investigate the grisly suicide of a nun at a remote Romanian convent (mentioned as the real life Carta Monstaery – but not actually shot there). They are assisted by a handsome young local delivery man who goes by the name of ‘Frenchie’ (Jonas Bloquet).
Critical reception so far has been (if we are putting as positive a spin as possible on it) lukewarm. Much of the criticism centres on the lack of emotional depth and meaning, and in particular the predominance of cheap ‘jump scares’ over genuinely unsettling content. To me, this feels a little like the criticisms Tony Pullis’s Stoke City used to receive after they had just beaten far more fanciful and talented Premier League teams – that they only won because of their rudimentary tactics, and that their wins were devalued because they didn’t play the ‘proper’ way. Similarly, the critics who lament the tactics employed by Hardy are saying that The Nun is only scary because it is not playing fair.
Such critiques a little unjust. There absolutely is an extraordinary amount of jumpy moments, and it is accurate to say that by the end they become rather predictable and lose much of their power. However, many of the jumps are well handled and Hardy uses the screen space inventively. Also, part of the fun of this sort of popcorn horror movie is the audience’s knowledge of conventions around the use of safe and unsafe screen space, and attempting to anticipate where the next attack is going to come from (out of the darkness, from behind or in front of a character, or when the camera pans or tilts, for example). Mostly, the film gets these moments ‘right’, and the early scenes also play with expectations by setting up a jump that doesn’t arrive when an audience may be anticipating it. There is also an effective moment which delivers the anticipated jump, but triggers it a fraction too early (for this viewer at least) to be adequately prepared. During these scenes, and in another sequence which makes an explicit homage to Lucio Fulci, the film is in full control of its effect.
Also, in its favour is some terrific design work – especially around the set construction, and presentation of flowing robes, and characters (both dead and alive) gliding down corridors and from behind pillars or trees etc. The positioning of actors creates some striking compositions, as does the use of high and low angle camera placement.
Unfortunately, the film’s worst moments come late on during the climax when Hardy appears to lose confidence in the tone of the material. Jarringly, characters begin to use action movie-esque wisecracks. Not only are these unnecessary and simply unfunny, they feel cheap and tacked on. The humorous way Hardy plays with horror convention in the first 70 minutes is far more subtle and admirable.
It is also a shame because the final battle contains some fantastic stuff with a group of faceless nuns rampaging down a corridor, and a dungeon full of nuns dressed in white habits, with bloodied bags placed over their heads. Wisecracking heroes add nothing to such potentially exciting set-pieces.
As stated, this is a popcorn horror film, concerned with an audience’s reaction in the cinema at the time, and less troubled with unsettling viewers on a long term basis. It does not compare to recent future horror classics such as It Follows (2014) or Hereditary (2018), or even the undervalued Unfriended (2014). Yes, critics who say it lacks substance have a point, but this suggests a lack of understanding for what this sort of movie is. It is undoubtedly an ephemeral piece of work, but that’s ok, because the next episode in the franchise, or some other series, will be coming soon. This is not about creating a timeless, standalone experience, but about keeping the plate spinning for a franchise that lets the audience know exactly what they are in for. And, with this admittedly lowish bar, The Nun succeeds.