Who knew that the Summer of 2019 would earn the distinction as the Summer of Horror? Within less than a month, audiences were blessed (or cursed) with a Child’s Play reboot, Annabelle Comes Home, the latest installment in The Conjuring cinematic universe, and Midsommar, the new release from writer-director Ari Aster, which consummates the beautifully perfect marriage of Hereditary (Aster’s previously critically-lauded feature) and The Witch (from writer-director Robert Eggers).
These stories – despite their relative degrees of success from the standpoint of filmmaking and box office returns provide a platform for viewers to consider the state of both the current climate for horror films and the state of women in film.
Karen (Aubrey Plaza), the mom from Child’s Play is a modern marvel of imperfection. Dead-end job, hungry for love in all the wrong places, tired but loving mother. She is, as she mentions, the mom who had too much fun as a teenager in high school one night and is living with the consequences. There’s the snarky vibe that Plaza brings to every one of her performances, which is at odds with what should be Karen’s basic maternal instinct, but that point here is that Karen is baser than that; she would be happier without Andy. Unlike the obviously frustrated mother (Essie Davis) in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook who, despite dealing with a difficult child with highly attuned special needs, clearly loves her son.
The new Child’s Play also comes saddled with the franchise’s focus on the killer doll. Dubbed as a child’s best friend, the new version of Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill) preys on fears of technology run amok – with the doll’s operating system being a ubiquitous catch-all (imagine Goggle Home, Amazon Prime, and Apple’s Siri stuffed into a Raggedy Andy with the ability to wrap its little fingers around a knife) – and the idea that an abused Third World worker would be able to upset the balance of power by stripping a doll of its “conscience” by removing its “moral” factory settings. As silly as these things sound, I suppose its a step up from the crazed killer using voodoo to transfer his psyche into an inanimate object premise that kept Chucky alive and killing since the original movie’s release in 1988.
It would be easier to circumvent all of the silliness by turning the attention back to the chilling source though, back to Karen and her relationship with her son. Again, The Babadook proved the terrifying pull of guilt, fear, and a mother’s self-loathing mixed with a helping of desperation. Who needs a homicidal doll with internet access?
In Annabelle Comes Home, Daniela (Katie Sarife) is actually not the lead character or even the child of the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the evil artifact collecting, demon-fighting warriors of the franchise. She’s the best friend, the seemingly promiscuous pal who should be one of the first victims of the slasher/evil spirit of the moment. She should barely even need a name, just the label that seals her fate.
But she’s given the chance to become something more. In fact, she’s the only close to fully-realized character in this outing. And while she lacks the innate virtue of her blond babysitting friend Mary (Madison Iseman) or the inherited psychic abilities of the Warren’s young daughter Judy (McKenna Grace), Daniela is the heroine this installment desperately needs.
Of course, there has to be a catalyst for the all of the haunted house crises and the shenanigans that Annabelle takes advantage of during the long dark night, while the Warrens are away, but Daniela gets a backstory that gives meaning to the Warrens, Annabelle, and every conjured being in existence.
Which brings us to Dani (Florence Pugh), the protagonist of Aster’s new Jordan Peele-approved feature Midsommar. She’s caught in a dead-end relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), who’s simply not ready to be anybody’s boyfriend or much of anything else just yet. He hasn’t lived enough to have grown into a person – albeit student, boyfriend or sentient being. He’s just a guy.
This becomes clear when Dani gets the news that her perpetually-troubled sister has taken her own life and that of their parents in a murder-suicide scenario that is all the more ruthless in its dreary commonality. Dani is wrecked by survivor’s guilt, and Christian isn’t terribly empathetic, because he’s planning a trip with three of his grad school buddies – Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) – to Pelle’s Swedish commune home, where they intend to enjoy the blond fruits of the land.
What does each of these young women need – within the narrow confines of their worlds? Karen needs companionship, both for her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and herself. Daniela longs for forgiveness from her father (Anthony Wemyss), the victim of a car accident that she feels responsible for, since she was the driver. And Dani seeks a new family, people who understand the loss she has experienced and can provide meaningful emotional support.
Maybe horror is rooted in the lengths we are willing to go to satisfy the needs that fuel our desperation. Forget about the tired cliches about upping the ante on horrific and bloody dismemberments, the shocks of watching inanimate objects move, dance, and slay one-dimensional characters (with less actual character than the objects themselves) and the presentation of mythic rituals aimed at linking the modern age to some prehistoric definition of what is natural.
Horror is just our primal fear and loathing of human weakness. In the most basic attempts at shock and awe captured onscreen, storytellers stumble upon this truth and find ways to represent it. As in a few fleeting moments of Plaza’s portrayal of Karen or in the sneak peeks Sarife grants us into Daniela’s backstory, we can appreciate who these characters might have been, if the narratives they found themselves in had been willing to spend more time on their wounded perspectives.
That is what sets Midsommar apart. Aster knows that Dani is what matters most and spends the time – at points excruciating, in fact – on each and every second of her breakdown as a character. The horror of her loss, the continued realization that her boyfriend cannot and will not be there for her, and what it will take for her to gain the strength to move on.
Therein lies the true terrifying depths of Midsommar. It shows us what it looks like when we’re free to do bad things without having to feel guilty anymore. There’s freedom in that act of defiance. Now that’s frightening.