2019 Film Essays

The “Happy” Endings of Ari Aster’s Cult Horror Duology

Spoilers for Hereditary and Midsommar below.

For the most part, horror films don’t have traditional happy endings. This, of course, is part of the genre aim — to unsettle; to scare, to make unsafe. The most common ending in a horror film finds a situation resolved for the moment, yet with the threat of evil potentially returning in the future. Even in the more rare ending scenario in which the evil is unequivocally defeated, the film often makes a point of showing just how damaged and traumatized the characters have become throughout their ordeal. Writer-director Ari Aster has been praised due to the success of his debut horror features, 2018’s Hereditary and 2019’s Midsommar, in part due to his innovative and fresh approach to the genre. That approach extends to the endings of both movies, which the filmmaker has referred to as being like a “crescendo.” To be sure, each film’s respective finale is chaotic, cacophonous and emotional. Yet that word “crescendo,” in addition to denoting a climax, has implications of excitement, even joy, too. Both Hereditary and Midsommar are films that contrast and complement each other, a yin yang duology. As such, each film has an ending that can be seen as a happy one, despite being anything but. It’s this tension of narrative, character and presentation that makes Aster’s films so delightfully insightful and wickedly perverse.

Part of understanding what makes these endings “happy” is understanding the underlying trauma each film explores. Hereditary is a story about a troubled family, the Grahams, and the many deep rooted issues that they must contend with. The initial trauma suffered by the Grahams is surface level, having to do first with the death of Graham matriarch Annie’s (Toni Collette) elderly mother, and later compounded by the seeming accidental death of her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The overwhelming grief and disorientation from these deaths in rapid succession upend the family’s dynamic, bringing up repressed emotions and unresolved past incidents. Annie can’t reconcile the fact that she wasn’t as close to her daughter as she’d have liked, resents her son Peter (Alex Wolff) and feels that her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who used to be her psychiatrist, is always judging her. Peter, on the other hand, feels unwanted by his mother (who at one point admits as much), and can’t get over the time she went sleepwalking and doused him and his sister in paint thinner, matches at the ready, before waking up. Even Charlie, before her death, feels ostracized in general, choosing to sleep in a treehouse instead of her bedroom and rarely speaking to her family. For much of the film, Annie worries if she (and especially her children) inherited her family’s history of mental illness — either her father’s psychotic depression, her mother’s dissociative identity disorder or her brother’s schizophrenia. Peter and Steve worry about Annie suffering from a mental illness herself. In every instance, Hereditary posits that the Graham family tree is the main source of trauma, with the children especially feeling the weight of their unbreakable connection to it.

Where Hereditary observes the terror of the biological family, Midsommar looks at the pain inflicted by a family of choice, not relation. Midsommar’s yin/yang relationship with Hereditary is evident right from the beginning of the film, as Dani (Florence Pugh) must endure the grief of loss. In her instance, it’s the loss of her entire biological family, who have died in a murder-suicide perpetrated by her sister. Dani is left with her passively emotionally abusive boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) — who is secretly harboring a desire to end their years-long relationship — and Christian’s group of grad student friends. When the group announces their plan to visit rural Sweden with one of their native friends, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), for a rare and special festival, Christian tells them to invite Dani along, expecting she’ll turn down the invitation. Instead, she accepts, and the group travel to Hälsingland to spend nine days with Pelle’s people, the Hårga. Once there, the Hårga invite and involve Pelle’s group of American grad students, especially Dani, in their ancient and off-putting rituals and practices, many of which exacerbate underlying issues within the group, especially Dani’s fear of suicide. Christian in particular becomes more distant and aloof during the festival, more concerned with stealing his friend and fellow student’s thesis as well as making eyes at a comely local girl than attending to Dani’s needs. Meanwhile, Pelle is attentive toward Dani, as are the rest of the Hårga, while her friends (and especially her boyfriend) disappear either figuratively or literally. Midsommar shows Dani in need of love, attention and acceptance, qualities that her circle of friends and boyfriend fail to provide.

It is through the climax of each film that Aster’s characters find their badly needed catharsis and resolution to their problems. In Hereditary, it turns out that Grandma Graham was part of a cult that worships a demon known as Paimon, to whom the cult dedicates their lives (and, in the grandmother’s case, their biological families’ bodies). As the culmination of a years-long ritual, the cult cause the deaths of the rest of the Grahams — Steve is burned to death, Annie decapitates herself and Peter takes a leap from an attic window. Charlie, however, is reborn within Peter’s body, and it is she/he (along with the spirit of Paimon, who is now a part of Charlie/Peter) who is taken in by a new family, the Paimon cult. Midsommar’s Dani finds herself similarly accepted into a family at the end of the film. After becoming the May Queen, Dani discovers Christian’s infidelity, and is then given the choice of person to complete the Hårga’s sacrifice ritual — a random Hårga member, or Christian himself. As Christian is put into a burning building with the other sacrifices, Dani has observed that the rest of her American compatriots are gone, she’s come to terms with her relationship with the toxic Christian to be over and has seen the Hårga treat her as a new and valued member of the cult. Both Hereditary and Midsommar close on final (or penultimate) close up shots of Charlie/Peter and Dani, both of whom have a beatific look on their faces, with Dani even breaking into a smile. With the score of each movie reaching a literal crescendo, it seems as if Aster is all but screaming at the audience that these characters have achieved catharsis, and a type of victory. Peter/Charlie are finally free of their damaged family, and the lonely, heartbroken Dani has gotten over a toxic relationship and found a new family unit.

Of course, these new “families” Peter/Charlie and Dani find themselves in are cults who are responsible for manipulating and indirectly (or even directly) causing the untimely deaths of innocents, amongst other crimes. It’s in that dichotomy, as well as his perverse sense of humor, that Aster cements his films as horror movies, despite a literal interpretation of their endings. In the tradition of other wicked horror filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke, Aster makes a point of providing his characters with ample warnings that they fail to heed. In Hereditary, Annie finds several satanic phrases scribbled on the walls of her home, yet makes no inquiry into them, and also passes over her mother’s books of rituals and the occult until it’s too late. In Midsommar, Dani — along with her friends — chooses to accept the Hårga’s bizarre and vague explanations for their fellow outsiders’ disappearances, and regard everything the cult does that they object to as a practice foreign to them that they need to be sensitive to and accepting of. Aster even goes so far as to forewarn the audience in Midsommar, beginning the film with a mural that pictorially depicts everything that’s about to happen. Elements like that are part and parcel of the tone of the movies, which are darkly funny in addition to being oppressively horrific. There are many moments in both films that are so outrageous as to be humorous, with dialogue and even, in Midsommar’s case, entire characters that are openly comedic. What’s perhaps the most telling about Aster’s satiric approach is in each film’s choice of end credit song. Hereditary closes with “Both Sides Now,” and Midsommar ends with “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore),” two 60s pop ballads. They’re not performed by their original artists Joni Mitchell and The Walker Brothers, however, but by Judy Collins and Frankie Valli, in arrangements decidedly more sunny-sounding than the original versions. It’s Aster’s approach to endings in miniature — on the surface, these songs are pleasant and happy, but they mask a more unsettling truth beneath.

If part of the horror genre’s mission is to elicit fear through the erosion of safety, then the endings of Hereditary and Midsommar are the ultimate expression of that mission. Consider the questions the endings leave unanswered: What kind of future does Charlie/Peter/Paimon have in store? How much of each persona is even left? How many more rituals are to come in the Hårga’s nine day festival? Are Dani’s duties as the May Queen over? Is she truly a part of the group? When even a happy ending isn’t happy due to context, what comfort is there to be found? Aster leaves his audiences wrapped in that unsettled tension, eliciting horror by seemingly providing its exact opposite, commenting satirically on his characters’ goals by giving them what they deeply wished for. The joke’s on them, as well as the viewer, for hoping everything might turn out alright.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.

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