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'Midsommar' review: Artful horror for strong stomachs

Vilhelm Blomgren and Florence Pugh in A24's "Midsommar,"

Vilhelm Blomgren and Florence Pugh in A24's "Midsommar," directed by Ari Aster.  Photo Credit: A24/Gabor Kotschy


PLOT Several Americans attend a festival in a remote Swedish village.

CAST Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter

RATED R (extreme gore)

LENGTH 2:20

BOTTOM LINE High-art horror that won't suit all tastes, or stomachs.

In Ari Aster's new horror film "Midsommar," several American college kids take a trip to Sweden. There's a cool festival there, staged by a local commune, and it's invite-only. There'll be wide-open spaces, magic mushrooms, nubile blondes — a millennial Woodstock, minus the bands. 

What our young heroes stumble into is less like Burning Man and more like "The Wicker Man," the classic British chiller from 1973. Aster’s movie bears some uncanny similarities to that one, including pagan rituals, a bevy of young May Queens, forbidden sexuality and a stomach-wrenching finale. “Midsommar,” though, distinguishes itself in one respect: It reaches heights of artistry and horror that few movies even aspire to.

"Midsommar" stars Florence Pugh as Dani, an emotionally needy girl whose wishy-washy boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), invites her on his guys-only trip to Sweden with friends. Of Christian’s friends — including William Jackson Harper as the intellectual Josh and Will Poulter as his opposite, Mark — only Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who grew up in the village, known as Helsingland, seems happy to have her. What Dani will experience, he explains, is "like theater." 

That's an apt description of the movie itself. The pageantry of the dancers (dressed in gauzy white) and the sorrowful beauty of the music (by Bobby Krlic, a British composer worth keeping an eye on) create the intensity and immediacy of a live performance. Aster worked for years with first-time production designer Henrik Svensson to create this richly imagined cult, known as the Harga, and it shows. Pawel Pogorzelski's sunny cinematography is the antidote to the usual horror-flick gloom: Most scenes, even gruesome ones, take place under glorious blue skies. 

Aster's own intensity can be a drawback. Of the new crop of artful horror directors including Jennifer Kent ("The Babadook"), Robert Eggers ("The Witch") and Jordan Peele ("Us"), Aster is easily the most brutal, and the most demanding on an audience. Aster doesn’t just want to scare you, he wants to traumatize you. The ghastliness of what unfolds on screen, coupled with a sense of inevitability, can be tough to take. 

Like his sensational but polarizing "Hereditary" (2018), "Midsommar" will not be everyone's idea of a good time. If you're looking for a few jolts and shivers, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for deep-reaching, soul-sucking horror, Aster has once again delivered. 

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