Warning: This piece contains some minor spoilers about Midsommar.
Horror movies can be beautiful. Anyone who’s seen The Birds, with its sweeping shots of an idyllic, seaside village, or the original Suspiria, with its Disney-inspired color palette — all bright reds and Technicolor blues — knows this to be true.
Which is why I’m not being facetious when I say that Ari Aster’s extraordinary new offering, Midsommar, is a beautiful film. Horrific, yes, but also quite beautiful. Aster, of course, is known to most of the world as the guy who wrote and directed Hereditary, a horror movie so monumentally fucked-up it had audiences walking out of the theater, popping Xanax pills, and suppressing the urge to vomit. Hereditary’s atmosphere of family trauma was bolstered by a deeply unsettling score by Colin Stetson, who used sharply manipulated brass and voice treatments to create music that felt straight-up evil.
Whereas Stetson largely avoided strings and discernible melodic themes for Hereditary, Midsommar uses a sweeping orchestral score by British producer Bobby Krlic — better known as the Haxan Cloak — to accentuate its blindingly bright backdrop of terror. The two films are, quite literally, night and day: Midsommar is as sun-drenched and bright as horror can get. The film’s promotional stills emphasize flower crowns and luscious daylight; its setting is a place where the sun never sets. Everyone is beautiful and blonde and dressed in clean white cotton frocks. What can go wrong?
Most of the film unfolds at a remote commune in northern Sweden, where a young American student named Dani (Florence Pugh), who’s recovering from an unspeakable family tragedy, travels to attend a mysterious once-a-century midsommar festival. She’s there with her perennially noncommittal boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends — including a Swedish guy named Pelle, who was nice enough to invite them in the first place. This being a horror movie, the festival does not turn out to be a fun, easygoing jaunt full of square-dancing and smiles. On the contrary, things take a terrifying turn pretty quickly as Dani realizes she is at the mercy of a bizarre Swedish cult, whose pagan activities — including ritualistic senicide and one deeply disturbing sexual initiation ceremony — are not the best solution to Dani’s relationship woes. I don’t want to give too many plot details away, because you deserve to go into this film cold, but suffice it to say the score includes track titles like “Murder Mystery” and “Fire Temple.”
It is a stunning and ambitious spin on the folk-horror category — longer and more expansive than Hereditary, and funnier, too, in a sick sort of way. (Comparisons to The Wicker Man, either the original or the batshit Nicolas Cage remake, are not entirely off-base.) And Krlic’s score is a major part of why it works. Full of curdled strings and enveloping dread, the music does much to establish the atmosphere of rustic terror and complement the film’s juxtaposition of visual beauty with truly horrific images.
What’s particularly impressive about the Midsommar score is the fact that Krlic also composed diegetic music to be performed onscreen by the villagers: mostly à cappella chanting and singing, though there are also pieces incorporating traditional Nordic instrumentation, including a Hurdy Gurdy. The most memorable example involves a chorus of orgasmic and cacophonic chanting, performed by nude Hårga women during a sickening mating ritual that must be seen to be believed. (This piece, “A Language Of Sex,” lasts only 45 seconds on the soundtrack; the event carries on much longer than that during the film.)
Krlic was involved with the project nearly from the beginning, which makes sense when you consider that much of his electronic music already resembles a horror soundtrack. (The Haxan Cloak’s acclaimed 2013 album, Excavation, was structured as a dark-ambient journey through the afterlife.) Aster was a fan of Krlic’s work and reportedly wrote the script while listening to Excavation nonstop; Krlic officially joined the project in 2017, well before the runaway success of Hereditary. Later, the two worked together in Krlic’s studio, with the filmmaker describing the emotional tenor of a particular scene as the musician created music to match it.
And yet the score is a far cry from the Haxan Cloak’s prior music, trading electronic soundscapes for strings. “Reading the script, you could definitely envision Midsommar as a horror film,” Krlic told the Fader in a recent interview, “but when the dailies started coming in and Ari and I were speaking more, we were trying to craft a fairy tale — which is why we were leaning on a traditional orchestra. I was trying to bring magic into it while avoiding a lot of horror tropes until it was necessary — but they only appear in short bursts.”
When the audience first takes notice of Krlic’s astoundingly creepy score during a crucial early scene, it resembles an alarm: bleating strings, fearsome urgency — an effect heightened by the fact that there are firefighters onscreen. Later, as the crew travels to Sweden, the soundtrack is consumed by groaning, atonal dread. (This piece, titled “Halsingland,” is the closest the Midsommar score comes to resembling Haxan Cloak’s prior work.) It’s clear, if it weren’t already, that bad shit is going to go down.
But once the narrative situates itself in the eternally sunny Swedish countryside, the music is as beautiful (and, yes, fairy tale-esque) as it is sinister. If it weren’t written to accompany a gruesome ritualistic suicide, the first half of “Attestupan” could conceivably show up on a Spotify playlist titled “Chill Ambient Soundscapes to Study To.” “Fire Temple,” the score’s nine-and-a-half-minute climax, is an elegiac and haunting accompaniment to the film’s horrifying denouement. There is fire, but this time there are no alarms.
Midsommar is playing in theaters now. But if you’re too scared to see it, just read the Wikipedia plot summary while listening to Krlic’s soundtrack.