is the latest horror film from Ari Aster, who made Hereditary, which starred Toni Collette and was a sensation. That was a domestic, claustrophobic scenario packed with jump scares — well, jump-ish scares; I wasn’t that scared, actually — whereas this is pastoral and relies more on building a quiet dread. It’s set in the remote countryside where a pagan community has its own superstitions and rituals and ‘elders’ and a maypole — and they are never good news, maypoles. This is clever and gripping in its own right, but it is also familiar and will certainly put you in mind of The Wicker Man. That is, the 1973 original, not the 2006 remake starring a deranged Nicolas Cage jump-kicking women in the throat, which we will never talk of again. I regret even bringing it up.
The film stars the magnificent Florence Pugh as Dani, who is grief-stricken — a prologue at the outset neatly shows us how she was traumatized — and clings to Christian (Jack Reynor), the boyfriend who is bad for her. She invites herself on a trip to Sweden with him and his friends — Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) — who are also bad for her. They’re not evil, but have no emotional intelligence and can’t connect with what she has been through. Consequently, they treat her as a pain and a drag and needy. There is an undercurrent of sharp humor running throughout, particularly evident in the scene where Christian tells his friends that Dani will be accompanying them. They’re sort of Seth Rogen lites, these fellas, and we know Dani deserves better, but does she know she deserves better? (Not yet. Give her time.)
Pelle, who is Swedish, is taking them to his native country to meet his folks, plus he has promised they can witness ‘a sort of nine-day festival we’re doing in the woods’ which happens ‘only once every 90 years’. They’re all studying anthropology, and Josh is doing his thesis on European midsummer traditions, so it kind of makes sense. They take a plane and drive for hours, finally arriving at Halsingland, which is isolated and situated in a large, wood-fringed meadow that is exceedingly lush and beautiful.
Here, the women wear traditional white dresses and flower-garland crowns while the men, also in white — I kept worrying about grass stains — look as if they’ve stepped out of the 19th century. There are runes engraved with odd symbols and a dormitory with strange hieroglyphic drawings all over the walls and peculiar brews and a bear in a cage. At first, Dani and the others are merely intrigued whereas I was already thinking: ‘Get out, get out. Turn round, and go.’ Oops. Too late.
At this point I could say: this happens, then this happens and there’s a wooden, pyramid-shaped construction that they have been told they must never enter. But the less you know the better. Aster keeps you off-kilter, steadily building (and building and building) that dread, and part of the fun is in not being able to anticipate where this is going exactly, or why those two ‘elders’ are being carried to the top of that cliff. There are horrors, but this is still a good horror film for those who don’t like horror films as it’s as much about the disturbing, menacing rhythm.
A couple of subplots do fall flat — the rivalry between Christian and Josh never really goes anywhere — but Pugh pulls it all together magnificently, especially in the final scene, which is horrifying. Or lovely. Or both.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.