Ari Aster wants to make one thing perfectly clear: “Midsommar” is a horror movie. The writer-director, whose elegant and soul-scraping “Hereditary” inflamed a semantic debate about the limits of its genre by daring to possess routine tropes with real trauma, is eager to get ahead of that whole conversation the second time around. Not that he can do anything to stop it.
When IndieWire recently sat down with the director in the basement of a Manhattan hotel, Aster knew full well that his latest film was certain to resurrect all of the same talking points. Another indelible nightmare that blurs the line between tradition and heresy in order to stir the unholy spirits that live inside our wounds, “Midsommar” begins with a premise that sounds almost perversely basic after the madness of “Hereditary.” A grieving young American woman (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and his grad school chums on a trip to an isolated Swedish village that’s celebrating a mysterious pagan festival that only happens once every 90 years. People start to die soon after they arrive.
It might as well be the plot of a “Hostel” movie, which is exactly what the idea was compared to when it was first pitched to Aster a few years back. And those trailers that made this feel like a millennial riff on “The Wicker Man?” They weren’t trying to mislead you. “This is a contribution to the folk horror genre,” Aster said emphatically. “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.”
Be that as it may, there’s something about “Midsommar” that makes you question what it is that you’re watching and squint at the screen; it’s the brightest horror movie ever made, and it naturally comes with a bit of glare. Where many of the other movies that share its DNA tend to see the human body as a subject of suffering, Aster prefers to think of it as a vessel; for him, the scares are just a means to an end. As in “Hereditary” before it, “Midsommar” is less interested in how its characters die than in how they live with their pain. “The joy is not in subverting expectations,” he said, “but delivering on expectations in a way that’s both inevitable and also emotionally surprising. The fun of the folk horror genre is that you know exactly where it’s going, and I didn’t want to fight that.”
For someone who can seem like a sui generis talent, Aster has no interest in reinventing the wheel. “I’m a cinephile,” he said with just the right amount of shame that word requires. “I love movies. For me, the most exciting thing about being a filmmaker is being in dialogue with the films and filmmakers I love, and using the common language of the cinema to work through my own stuff and make something personal out of it.”
“Midsommar” may be a folk horror movie that speaks to formative classics like “The Wicker Man” and “The Blood on Satan’s Claw,” but those aren’t the films that Aster returned to when making his own contribution to their genre; instead, he went back to the stuff that had left the biggest stamp on him, no matter what kind of movies they were, nor if they had never been put into conversation with each other before. As a result, “Midsommar” feels like getting turned around in a neck of the woods that you’ve always known by heart, and there’s nothing scarier than what you can find when you won’t even admit to yourself that you’re lost.
Here, Aster details nine movies that inspired “Midsommar.”