(First Post is doing a series about films discussed through the lens of their setting. I contributed this piece on an unsettling horror film that unfolds mainly in bright spaces)
In October 2019, during a writing residency in the Swedish town Stromstad, I took a bus to a farmland six miles away to see a stone ship, a prehistoric grave made up of dozens of large standing stones. My flatmate, the writer Girish Shahane, and I soon realised that this wasn’t anything like a normal tourist destination: despite its historical value, the stone ship was just there, majestic and poignant, in a deserted space. Signs of habitation were around us – houses, a herd of sheep walking past indolently, hay bales piled up in the distance – but as far as I can recall now we didn’t see another human being during the hour or so that we were there.
Briefly, thoughts of similar settings in horror films – the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example – came to my mind, but this was mainly academic (and I tend to think about horror-film tropes in mundane everyday situations anyway). It’s probably just as well that I hadn’t yet watched Ari Aster’s Midsommar, which had come out a month or two earlier – if I had, I would have felt a much deeper chill on that Swedish afternoon. Because the bulk of this strange, moody, unnerving film unfolds in an open Scandinavian setting where the sun rarely naps.
Midsommar begins on a different note, though, one that might come from a more conventional horror film. A choral music score, a glimpse of a medieval painting, followed by a snowy, tree-filled landscape seen in crepuscular light. Mysterious chants flood the soundtrack – it’s as if nature herself were calling out plaintively – and then there is an abrupt visual and aural cut: another sort of night-time setting, more urban, many houses packed together, and the sound of a phone ringing. We hear a young woman’s urgent-sounding voice message for her parents.
All this is a prelude to the tragedy about to strike the film’s protagonist Dani (a superb performance by Florence Pugh), who will lose her family to a suicide-homicide perpetrated by her mentally disturbed sister. However, this opening scene is also tonal misdirection: Midsommar will achieve its principal effects not in darkness but in blinding light. If those first few minutes create a sense of claustrophobia (this is not just because of what happens to Dani but also because we learn that her boyfriend Christian is feeling stifled by their relationship), the rest of the film will operate more in the opposite mode of agoraphobia, or the fear that can come from being in wide open spaces.
We tend to have preconceptions about genres such as noir, suspense thrillers or horror. When we picture films in these categories, we think of stygian or shadowy settings: night-time chases, shot in black and white, through a city’s deserted streets; something waiting in a closet, or under a bed, in a dark room. Yet some important works in these genres – or some very effective scenes within films – have been brightly lit, as I was reminded while hosting online discussions about film noir last year. The bank robberies conducted by a runaway couple in the terrific B-movie Gun Crazy (which was a precursor to Bonnie and Clyde), for instance. Or a great neo-noir, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown – and closer home, a film that paid tribute to it, Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under, which is set in sun-baked Rajasthan.
The horror genre has many intersecting modes, and Midsommar operates mainly in the psychological-cum-atmospheric mode, with a dose of gore. Its main setting is a commune in rural Sweden, where Dani ends up traveling with Christian and his friends, to celebrate a festival that takes place every ninety years. They are greeted by beaming locals dressed in white, flowers in their hair. Everyone is enthusiastic and friendly, but we are also aware of Dani’s vulnerable state of mind, her panic attacks, her awareness that the others are keeping a wary eye on her.
The young tourists lie on a hillside in the countryside, under a gentle sun – it’s 9 pm but the sky is still blue and reassuring. Dani falls asleep for a few hours; woken, disoriented, she asks if it got dark at all. Only for a couple of hours, and not completely, she is told. Is it tomorrow, she asks. From yesterday’s perspective, yes, is the reply. It’s a funny exchange, but it carries an undercurrent. We need our lives to be divided into days and nights, light and dark, to feel organised, to make sense of where we are and what to do. But what when it is daytime round the clock? How do you know when you’re awake and when you’re dreaming, when you should be active or lethargic?
Soon after this, a barren, rocky landscape provides the setting for the first big setpiece, the point where Dani and her friends realise they have walked into a pagan nightmare that they were unprepared for. And it is one of the brightest scenes in the film – you might argue that the brightness is essential from the cinematic point of view so that we can experience the fullness of the horrific sights that turn the youngsters’ stomachs. A face exploding open when a body hits a rock after a long fall, as part of a ritual suicide; another face being coolly demolished with a mallet, folding in on itself like papier-mâché.
The rituals build; here is a story where two of the most private acts, suicide and procreation, are performed in a communal setting, with people not just watching and encouraging but also making empathetic sounds and gestures – there is something simultaneously horrifying, hilarious and tender about these scenes. And as the story progresses, Dani – soon to be crowned May Queen – finds herself with more agency and control than she had earlier when she was essentially a tag-along for a reluctant boyfriend and his pals.
One of the initial scenes in Midsommar is a night-time view of a house of horrors – Dani’s family home after rescue workers in gas masks discover the bodies of her parents and sister. The film’s final scene is a sort of distorted complement to this sequence – another building, with people in it, is being set ablaze, and Dani is watching, smiling beatifically as it collapses. There is something very liberating about her journey from fretting about her family, repeatedly calling her boyfriend for support, to the final sequence where she gets to make a judgement and watches its consequences play out – again, under the Scandinavian sun.
Midsommar is packed with reminders that external trappings of place and time are secondary in the horror genre; what matters is the darkness within. And if a film succeeds in depicting that darkness vividly, then a sunshiney environment can make the experience even more unnerving, because viewers have nowhere to hide. Watching such a film in a hall, when a scene is dimly lit, we feel reflexively safer, more protected in our seat (even if something scary is happening on the screen) – we feel like we are sheltered, and that the person in the next chair won’t be able to tell if our hands are half-covering our eyes. But when the screen is dazzlingly bright, and that brightness spills over to our viewing space, we are exposed too. A very special sort of terror resides in that experience.