A folk horror mini-season arrives at Plymouth Arts Cinema with one of the greatest British films ever made, The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy, 1973), and a loose, contemporary update, the superlative Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019).
While some corners have called Midsommar a remake of The Wicker Man; this is mostly an unfair charge, but core themes do run through both films. While The Wicker Man tells the story of a devout Christian trying to solve the mystery of a missing girl, and Midsommar is about a young woman hoping a trip abroad with a checked-out boyfriend might give her relief from recent trauma – both films deal with that grey area of good and evil but more importantly – community and their rituals; the relation to the place they live and the sacrifices those who inhabit the are willing to make to stay. And looking closer, the films focus on a Pagan festival, outsiders, isolation, gaslighting, martyrdom, the crowning of the May Queen, the use of wind, and the most obvious one (spoiler alert), immolation. It’s a case of different ways to get there, and the destination might be the same, but there’s so much more that’s different with Aster’s film that not even a back-to-back viewing with The Wicker Man would bore you for a second.
In an interview with Empire Magazine (July 2019) director Ari Aster was quick to deny that the latter was influenced by the former: “I basically let go of The Wicker Man as an influence the minute I decided to make this […] I tried to avoid it as much as I could. I think what the movie tries to do is point to The Wicker Man and set up expectations native to that film, then take a left-turn from there and go somewhere surprising.”
But as much as there are similarities, Midsommar is a breath of fresh air; a truly beautiful piece of modern cinema that’s not just beguiling to look at, but is also a frequently challenging watch. At times dementedly brutal, once seen you’ll never forget it. And while The Wicker Man is an almost bloodless film, it remains an uncanny watch no matter how many times you’ve seen it (in my case, probably fifty or more times), an oblique thriller with one of the greatest pay-offs in cinematic history.
Although I did cheekily suggest on its day of release when I staggered out of the cinema that it should have its own subgenre, ‘floral horror’, Midsommar more than deserves its place in the ‘folk horror’ category amongst other films such as The Blood on Satan’s Claw (dir. Piers Haggard, 1971) and Witchfinder General (dir. Michael Reeves, 1968). So while Midsommar and The Wicker Man may be alike, and there’s only so many ways you can skin a cat, at least this time we’ve found out there’s also only so many ways you can skin a bear.
And yes, I haven’t mentioned that The Wicker Man is a musical. I know, I know…
‘Gently’ Johnny Mains
Johnny Mains is an award-winning editor and film historian. He invited director Robin Hardy to Plymouth for a screening of The Wicker Man in 2014, in one of his last public appearances. Mains’ books include The Sorcerers: The Original Screenplay by John Burke and he is currently working on the film biographies of Alan Clarke’s Scum and Tod Browning’s Freaks.
Midsommar is screening at Plymouth Arts Cinema at 8pm on Wednesday 21 June. The film will be introduced by Dr Eddie Falvey, Lecturer at Arts University Plymouth, as part of the Screen Talks series, an Arts University Plymouth Knowledge Exchange project supported by Research England’s Knowledge Exchange Funding for Smaller Providers.
The Wicker Man is screening at Plymouth Arts Cinema from Friday 23 – Wednesday 28 June. The screening on Friday 23 June will be introduced by Johnny Mains, award-winning editor, author and genre film historian. His latest book is Celtic Weird and he writes extensive film liner notes for Arrow and the British Film Institute.