We encounter filmic atmosphere vaguely, imperceptibly, but emotively and reflexively; a movie is a mood. Hereditary and Midsommar creep into our consciousness through subtle shifts in light, sound, and camerawork. One film shrouded in darkness, the other bathed in light, it’s not what we necessarily see that disturbs us, but what we sense.
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An early sequence in Ari Aster’s first feature-length film, Hereditary (2018), shows the film’s teenage protagonist, Peter, half-listening to an English class discussion on Euripides’ famous play Heracles, which recounts the descent of the Greek hero into a mad frenzy that leads him to murder his wife and children. The play’s tragedy, one student says, lies not in its grisly conclusion but in its inescapability. “If it’s all just inevitable,” she concludes, “then that means the characters are just like hopeless pawns in this horrible machine.” This student’s commentary is Hereditary winking at itself, priming Aster’s viewers for what’s to come.
The film, which recounts the aftermath of the Graham family coping with the death of their matriarch, Ellen Taper Leigh, thematizes the lack of control its characters have in determining the course of events that befall them. To cite only a few examples: a schoolgirl gets decapitated; a man is lit on fire; a woman saws off her own head; numerous bodies are dug up. All these happenings are the result of a pact Ellen made with a demon called Paimon, a servant of the devil, to use her family as the staging ground for satanic revolution. Things in Hereditary are completely out of control for the Grahams. It’s fitting that its female lead, Annie, a role superbly acted by Toni Collette, is herself a miniaturist who makes plastic replicas of real-life places, persons, and events. A higher intelligence gets to play world-builder in Hereditary. The film even begins with a trick shot that leads viewers into what looks a dollhouse only for the mise-en-scène to burst into life with human actors (Figure 1). There are forces at work beyond the frame in Hereditary, moving people in its twisted designs like toys or, as Aster puts it, “hopeless pawns.”
The apparitions intruding from the beyond into Hereditary draw our attention to the visual field’s periphery. The most startling things in Aster’s film are those that imperceptibly slip in and out of his shots. Toward the end, for instance, as Peter regains consciousness in a dark room and calls out for help, the viewer slowly notices a possessed Annie suspended above him, pinned up against a wall, in the shot’s upper-left-hand corner. She then floats out along the top of the frame in a spider-walk à la William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Later, when Peter rushes into an attic to escape his mother, who tries to break down the door by manically smashing her head against it, the viewer can see naked bodies hidden in the shot’s depths. These peripheral effects give way to a terrifying viewing experience, especially in theaters, as spectators will discover different things at different times and react accordingly, thus fueling a kind of chain reaction hysteria.
The difficulty in discerning what lies at the edges of Hereditary is intensified by a major aesthetic strategy of the film. Aster’s trusted cameraman, Pawel Pogorzelski, often denies us access to the terrifying sights beyond the frame. Whenever a character registers some sort of disturbance – like when Peter looks up to find Annie sawing off her head with piano wire – the camera will hold its focus on the gazer rather than the object of the gaze. Instead of a shot-reverse-shot technique, Pogorzelski’s camera takes a 180-degree swivel along the character’s frightened expression. The cinematography refuses, thereby intensifying, our desire to see what lies outside the field of vision. Dread sets in; what we can’t see scares us most. The eerie noises of tongue clicks, cutting knifes, and distorted synths only amplify the horror sneaking into the frame from offscreen.
The opposite could be said of Aster’s follow-up film, Midsommar (2019), a movie that follows a group of graduate students who find themselves in the clutches of a pagan cult in Sweden celebrating the arrival of summer – a twisted take on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The shots in Midsommar overflow with visual information. For example, the apartment of Aster’s protagonist, Dani (brilliantly played by Florence Pugh, who came to fame for a temperamentally opposite role in William Oldroyd’s 2016 Lady Macbeth), is seen covered in paintings that presage Midsommar’s narrative events. One picture, painted by John Bauer, a Swedish artist remembered for his Nordic fairy tales in the early twentieth century, shows a little girl in a crown kissing a bear on the nose. Placed directly above Dani’s bed, Bauer’s work leaps ahead to the film’s conclusion when Dani, newly crowned as May Queen, orders her ex-boyfriend to be burned alive in a bear carcass (Figure 2). Indeed, the final image of Midsommar visually quotes the conclusion of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), which shows a man being burned in a wooden edifice on a remote island off the coast of Scotland. Such iconographic imagery suffuses Midsommar: wall-to-wall folk carvings à la the Sistine Chapel; indecipherable scrolls, books, and photo albums; and mysterious runes. The secrets to this world are in plain view the whole time. Our gaze focalizes on the foreground. The film’s sheer number of characters, too, all dressed in dazzling white, further command attention. If Hereditary trained our eyes to its corners, in Midsommar, our eyes gravitate to the center of Aster’s twisted imagescapes. We cannot not see what’s unfolding before us. As in a circus, all the action is at the center. The “pawns” of Hereditary are replaced by the audiences of Midsommar, who – much like Aster’s own viewers – find themselves at the periphery watching events unfold, like when they watch an elderly couple plummet to their death off a cliffside.
Thus, while Hereditary draws our attention outward, Midsommar pulls it inward. The former is centrifugal, the latter centripetal. Though characters exhibit the same lack of control in Midsommar as they do in Hereditary – several shots of interior spaces in Midsommar even replicate Hereditary’s dollhouse aesthetic – the evil forces at work on them are front and center. There’s nowhere to hide within the frame. Indeed, Pogorzelski continually chooses to widen the visual field in Midsommar rather than obfuscate it. Sequences that begin with shots of individual characters often give way to top shots looking directly down on the scene, thereby swallowing up Aster’s protagonists in the larger imagescape. These aerial views reveal geometrically arranged mise-en-scènes of intersecting lines and concentric circles that, on the one hand, recall Annie’s miniaturist designs in Hereditary, but, on the other, overload the frame with visual information to disorienting effect (Figures 3 & 4). While the camerawork of Midsommar underscores its characters’ powerlessness in the cult’s designs, it does so via a broadening of scale and an excess of imagery. Several shots are literally ruptured by the sheer volume of visual content. Consuming hallucinogens, home remedies, and sedatives at every turn, Aster’s protagonists regularly look out onto an ever-changing landscape, rippling over itself in psychedelic waves. Midsommar projects a drug-induced experience onscreen. It’s as if the film’s visuals resist being held down in any given shot. The horror swirls at the center in Midsommar, not out from the margins as in Hereditary.
The mobilization of space in both works, then, is opposite. Hereditary is an indoor movie, one that unfolds mostly in bedrooms, attics, and treehouses, while Midsommar is a movie of the outdoors, which offers sweeping views of the Scandinavian countryside (Figure 5). Aster replaces the former’s claustrophobia with the latter’s agoraphobia. Even the barns used for sleeping on the cult’s compound in Midsommar are communal spaces. The private family drama of Hereditary explodes in Midsommar into an orgy of spectacle and mayhem – sometimes literally. A concluding sex scene shows the film’s male lead, Christian, being encouraged by a chorus of naked women to impregnate a Swedish maiden before their eyes. Only in Midsommar’s opening sequences, when Dani learns of her parents’ murder by her schizophrenic sister, does it resemble Hereditary’s enclosed mise-en-scènes. The intimate family spaces ruptured by trauma that commence Midsommar act as a bridge to where Hereditary leaves off, at a demonic family reunion in a treehouse. This link between the two is furthered by the screams an inconsolable Dani wails into Christian’s arms, which tonally duplicate Annie’s cries after discovering the body of her decapitated daughter in Hereditary. Yet Midsommar collapses these interior spaces as soon as it relocates to Hälsingland, a far-flung province on Sweden’s east coast. The juxtapositional use of space in these films doesn’t lessen their capacity to disturb. Aster proves that we can be scared silly anywhere. We’re no safer indoors than we are outdoors, on the periphery of the drama or at its center, in wide-open spaces or in tightly packed dollhouses. Taken together, Hereditary and Midsommar reveal how the architecture of horror is, in fact, not a matter of space, but of light.
Buildings and structures are often described as if their atmospheric components could be disregarded. Yet, as the spatial theorist Tim Ingold reminds us, space is “as much a thing of air, light, sound, and mood as it is a construction wrought from solidary elements.”1 Our apprehension of space arises from a mingling of our own sensorial awarenesses with the ever-changing pulsations of the medium in which we are immersed. “It is this omnidirectional, multisensory, embodied and emotive encounter with space and place that makes us insiders and participants.”2 The tangible sites of our lives are only made so because of intangible atmospheres – and so are the worlds in which we immerse ourselves on big screens. In Hereditary and Midsommar, Aster is keen to the fact that movies are atmospheric constructions, nothing but mobilized images of light.
We encounter filmic atmosphere vaguely, imperceptibly, but emotively and reflexively; a movie is a mood. Hereditary and Midsommar creep into our consciousness through subtle shifts in light, sound, and camerawork. One film shrouded in darkness, the other bathed in light, it’s not what we necessarily see that disturbs us, but what we sense. The sinister things percolating at the edges of Hereditary snake themselves into our psyche, which, eventually bubbles over into bloodcurdling screams, while, in Midsommar, the carnivalesque images of ritualistic violence fuel a different kind of atmosphere (Figure 6). Whereas terror predominates Hereditary, bewilderment governs Midsommar’s. Aster builds a world onscreen that confuses and revolts; he disperses our defenses against his images. Atmosphere overwhelms us, leaving us psychically exposed and sickly curious. In Hälsingland, light reveals how space acquires mood by way of ethereal, ineffable qualities.
From the outset, the characters in Midsommar are constantly trying to reestablish their spatial coordinates: “How long is the drive?” “Where are we?” “Where are we going?” The film’s cinematography enacts this sort of spatial disorientation. The camera unexpectedly loops over images in full 360-degree rotations, captures characters upside-down, and repeatedly tilts up at the sky so that sunbeams drench Aster’s imagescapes. Indeed, in Midsommar, space is replaced by light (Figure 7). The screen itself dissolves before our eyes, and things haphazardly immaterialize, including the people who keep going missing. If Hereditary strands viewers in the dark, Midsommar leaves us in broad daylight. This spatial displacement, naturally, disrupts our perception of time. “Is it tomorrow?” Dani asks at one point. “I mean, from yesterday’s perspective,” Christian answers. Another character balks that it could be so bright at nine o’clock at night. The mood of Midsommar is one of stupefaction. Like Aster’s characters, spectators feel just as vulnerable throughout the film, whose eerie light washes all over us. The haunting atmosphere of Midsommar reminds us that light rays rarely emit as straight lines, but as beams that curl, encircle, and envelop. There’s nowhere to hide in Hälsingland. We’re filled with dread, despite everything being in such plain view, precisely because there is nothing to grab ahold of in Midsommar. It’s all just a matter of light; everything is subject to vanishing. In the end, in a fabulously ironic statement, Aster has Frankie Valli’s “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)” play over Midsommar’s credits. “The moon ain’t gonna rise in the sky,” Valli croons, “Emptiness is the place you’re in.” A fitting send-off from the world of the midnight sun.
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All images are screenshots from the films’ DVDs, reproduced in compliance with the fair use provisions of copyright law.