Unsolicited Thoughts on Recent Horrors

“Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened!” Florence Pugh as Dani in Midsommar. (Source)

I finally saw Midsommar.

Let me begin with the good. I liked it a lot more than Ari Aster’s first offering, Hereditary. The bright Scandinavian aesthetics and Pawel Pogorzelski‘s enchanting cinematography lent the film an undeniable visual appeal. The acting was also to be commended. Florence Pugh’s performance is a masterclass in theatrical distress.

That being said, the film was on the whole, yet another disappointment from Ari Aster. I cannot say the same about Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, which I saw with friends last week.

I think I can fairly compare these two horror directors working under the aegis of A24. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Eggers is better in every way that counts. Both have now produced folk horrors centered on the trauma of young women in claustrophobic wilderness. The Witch is more inventive, precisely because it is more traditional, than Midsommar. Or rather, it did what few films are willing to do in its approach to the past; take it on its own terms. Its originality lies in large part due to its embrace of the Puritan myths without judgment, and exposing the horrors we thought we left behind in the seventeenth century. Admittedly, Midsommar doesn’t have the burden (or the gift?) of history to work with. But one can’t help but feel that what we find here is just The Wicker Man gutted of its moral core and set slightly farther north. In fact, the ending is probably a double homage to both Wicker Man films.

Nicolas Cage in a bear skin suit. The Wicker Man (2006) – (Source)

While Midsommar is an improvement over the rather humdrum (if at times shocking and, admittedly, very well researched) Hereditary, it doesn’t push the boundaries of cinema in the way that The Lighthouse does. In The Lighthouse, we discover a radically different kind of film. Its irregular aspect ratio, its black-and-white cinematography, its baroquely salty dialect – these bewildering distinctions from the run-of-the-mill horror flick work together to construct a vision of a world totally unlike our own. And yet, The Lighthouse manages to provide a series of sights, sounds, and even smells so visceral that one feels entirely immersed in this other world.

Midsommar fails to do that. For all its blood-and-guts moments, for all its eros and trauma, one comes away from the experience feeling strangely detached. I couldn’t manage to care too much about what happens to these characters, some of whom are intensely annoying. Not so in The Lighthouse. One cares very, very deeply – or more correctly, you feel the confusion and desperation of the situation in your gut. You are on that island. It is happening to you.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment of Midsommar was its rather predictable plot twists (if I can even call them that). Anyone familiar with the genre will be able to see exactly what is coming, even if they can’t imagine all the precise details. Not so in The Lighthouse. While one can establish a direction of travel – particularly in the film’s first half – after a certain point, you become as disoriented as the film’s unhappy protagonists. Like its great antecedent, Moby Dick, The Lighthouse is full of strange allusions, haunting images, and intensely visceral shocks. It’s a tight, dark, and disturbing maze.

Beyond that, I have a complaint that is, perhaps, too subjective to warrant much value criticism. Midsommar failed to scare me. Not many horrors do, I have to confess. I liked Possum, even though it was more unnerving than actually scary. Two of my favorite horror films, The Shining and the original Wicker Man, don’t actually frighten me. Nor does The Witch. In their cases, I can overlook the lack of fear because of the strength of these movies has as a film. Midsommar wasn’t strong enough for me to forgive the lack of fear.

The Lighthouse however, climaxed with one of the most genuinely frightening scenes I have seen in any film for a very long time. Without saying too much, I will refer my readers to my essay on eldritch horror in the New England literary tradition. Eggers knows that tradition very, very well. The Lighthouse, like The Witch before it, is a superlative contribution to New England’s peculiar darkness. His final, terrifying scene in The Lighthouse is an echo of Pip’s experience in Chapter XCIII of Moby Dick. Eggers, and of many a chapter in Lovecraft.

Powerhouse performances, top-notch writing, historical faithfulness, invocation of the New England horror tradition, black humor, innovative cinematography, and genuine scares make The Lighthouse the best and most beautiful horror film of the year. (Source)

I’m a sucker for folk horror, as my readers may well recall. Midsommar does deserve a place in the folk horror canon. But The Witch and The Lighthouse are higher on that grisly totem pole. They are also better works of art.

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