In early 2019, New York born filmmaker Ari Aster released Midsommar, his much anticipated follow up to Hereditary. Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor star as a young couple who travel to a rural Swedish town to take part in their traditional summer festival after the brutal suicide and double murder of Dani’s (Pugh) sister and parents. The difficult 2nd picture is always daunting for any filmmaker, especially when your debut was such a success as was the case with Hereditary. Despite everyone universally adoring Toni Collette’s performance, ultimately Hereditary became a divisive film. Both a passenger and a victim of the hype train. While some within the genre didn’t think it deserved the praise it received others labelled it “elevated horror” because, and perhaps I’m making unwarranted assumptions here, they believed that it was too good for the horror genre and liking it somehow belittled their status as film critics.
Even though it only took about half of it’s predecessors box office, Midsommar certainly held up to Hereditary’s success and in many ways surpassed it in status alone. While the plots are very different the underlying themes that are front and centre of both films are fairly similar. Family tragedy. Agonizing grief.
Florence Pugh’s performance in Midsommar is truly something out of this world. For me it’s one of the most outstanding performances of last year and if any actress from a horror film ever deserved to be scooping up all the leading lady awards it surely should have been Florence. Ya dig?
Like Hereditary, Midsommar floats around the horror tropes confusing the audience into ever thinking it’s even a horror movie at all. Of course Aster does an amazing job of building tension and anticipation. Midsommar is basically all anticipation until THAT scene happens, then you know you’re watching a horror movie. From then on as a viewer it’s basically anxiety attack after anxiety attack. Midsommar initially doesn’t fall into any definitive sub-genre but it’s clearly a modern day folk-horror tale and when it comes to folk-horror there’s no film more intrinsically deserving of that label than The Wicker Man (1973). Directed by Robin Hardy and starring the enigmatic Edward Woodward and incomparable Christopher Lee, The Wicker Man put folk-horror on the map and almost single handily influenced an entire generation of filmmakers to tell unique and genre bending horror stories.
Undoubtedly Ari Aster is a huge fan of The Wicker Man. The influence is blatantly evident in Midsommar. Aster told Empire Magazine a few months after the films release that,
“I basically let go of The Wicker Man as an influence the minute I decided to make this…I tried to avoid it as much as I could. I think what the movie tries to do is point to The Wicker Man and set up expectations native to that film, then take a left-turn from there and go somewhere surprising.”
Midsommar definitely takes its cues from The Wicker Man but it’s a more complicated look into the complete and utter explosive breakdown of the relationship between Dani and her boyfriend. Much like The Wicker Man it has a fairly laborious build to a deeply, and I can't emphasise that word enough, deeply disturbing finale that will likely forever haunt the minds of every single person who suffered watching it for the rest of their lives. Aster said of The Wicker Man’s influence,
“I know the trajectory, I know how it works, and I was really excited about putting this movie in that skeleton and not doing anything to fuck with its spine.”
The Wicker Man is such a strange but beguiling film. It starts off with Woodward’s disciplinarian Sergeant Howie arriving on the idyllic Summerisle off the coast of Scotland. He has been sent here after receiving correspondence about a missing young girl. Howie is a man of God who clearly lives his life within a strict set of rules and the free flowing, pastoral way of life on Summerisle isn’t exactly his kind of thing, especially when he isn’t getting the answers he wants. The locals turn against him and gradually Howie becomes increasingly aware that his time on Summerisle is actually a prison sentence.
Midsommar isn’t the only recent folk-horror film to hark back to the greatness of The Wicker Man. For a more brazen contender you have to look no further than Gareth Evans viscerally beautiful Apostle from 2018. It’s a very different time period but the set up in Apostle is almost identical to The Wicker Man. Dan Stevens plays Thomas Richardson, who arrives on a secluded island in an attempt to rescue his kidnapped sister and soon discovers that there's actually a darker secret hiding behind the guise of the cult clan who make the rules. Whilst paying tribute to everything that was good about Robin Hardy’s film, Apostle does manage to bring something new to the table in a very interesting manner. It swaps out the folk songs for gore and doesn’t quite have the same celebration of WTF moments in the finale that Midsommar and The Wicker Man share but it gets pretty close.
David Bruckner's 2017 The Ritual, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and A Field in England and 2011 comedy horror Inbred. These are just a small collection of tributes. And of course Gatiss and company’s The League of Gentlemen famously wrote an entire segment around the idea of the “local shop for local people”. Who can forget Edgar Wright's The Empire Strikes Back of the Cornetto Trilogy Hot Fuzz. Another celebration of keeping it local.
The important central themes that can often be found in the folk-horror sub genre are that of faith and the occult. The Wicker Man is essentially Howie’s devout belief in Christianity versus the local villagers belief in Paganism. Who is right and who is wrong? Having a certain belief system doesn’t and shouldn’t fundamentally make you an authoritarian. That is perhaps were Sergeant Howie falls asunder, not that his last moments were apropos in any way. Faith and one’s sacrifice has and always will be a questionable variable and it’s one of the reasons why so many movies go back to The Wicker Man for inspiration. It’s relevance is eternal.
The Wicker Man may be one of the most influential British horror movies of all time. It’s difficult to think now given it’s almost unrivalled cult status but it was mostly hailed as a complete failure in filmmaking back when it was first released. It’s impact is still being seen in films to this day and will continue to influence filmmakers for a very long time to come.
- Gavin Logan