Spoiler Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Hereditary and one notable scene in Midsommar.
Only a year ago, Ari Aster’s feature debut shook audiences with its haunting portrayal of grief and the inescapable family skeletons that lurk in the dark recesses of our mind. Hereditary wasn’t for everyone; its brand of horror lies more with slow creeping dread and bleak emotional destruction than a traditional horror structure. But even if Hereditary didn’t quite work for you, one major scene caught all of us with our pants down. An unexpected, brutal demise of a key character in Hereditary demonstrated Aster wasn’t afraid to kill his darlings in ruthless ways. He carries that forward in his sophomore feature, Midsommar (read our review). Both use visceral head trauma in scenes that mark the turning point for his protagonists, from relative safety to nightmarish descents into madness. And both films demonstrate that Aster has a talent for getting up close and personal with the gore in confrontational ways.
Hereditary begins with the funeral of Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) mother. It establishes the Graham family, and the stronghold the deceased had over their lives. We learn that Annie’s relationship with her mother was tense at best, and that youngest child Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who was grandma’s absolute favorite, has a severe nut allergy. That’s only the start of the heavy foreshadowing Aster uses to broadcast the ominous journey ahead for the Grahams.
Charlie isn’t your average child; she’s withdrawn and socially awkward. She makes sculptures out of found objects, including decapitated heads of dead birds- also an important bit of foreshadowing. When Annie later forces her eldest son Peter (Alex Wolff) to bring Charlie along with him to a party, Aster makes sure to home in on symbols carved into a telephone pole their vehicle passes on a deserted stretch of road. Peter abandons Charlie quickly upon arriving at the party, ushering her toward a large chocolate cake in the hopes that it will keep her occupied. Except, it happened to contain nuts. Cue the anaphylaxis setting in, without an EpiPen in sight. A very scared Peter gets his sister back into the car and tries to rush her to aid while she gets worse in the backseat. She sticks her head out of the window for air at the precise moment Peter swerves to avoid a deer. One repulsive, skin-crawling second later, both Peter and the audience understands that Charlie- the very character we expected to be the focal point of the film- has been decapitated by that telephone pole.
Aster isn’t done, though. A shocked Peter leaves his sister’s body in the car for his mother to discover the next day, and eventually, we see Charlie’s rotting bug-infested head sitting on the side of the road. Later, when shit is hitting the proverbial fan, Annie discovers the headless corpse of her mother in the attic. But most disturbing of all is when Annie, possessed, removes her own head with a piano wire, the slow garroting movement speeding up as Peter looks on in horror. In Charlie’s treehouse, he finds his sister’s gnarly, decapitated head adorning a mannequin body, the headless corpses of his grandmother and mother bowing to it as the ceremony of granting Paimon a male body is finally completed.
Though Hereditary keeps its horror mostly relegated to atmosphere and psychological turmoil, Aster contrasts it with the stark depictions of gore and gruesome decapitations. Midsommar feels like a perfect complement in that way; the horror is much more psychologically based but the moments of gore truly stick out. Like Hereditary, Midsommar also uses shocking head trauma to mark a turning point in the story, albeit in a very different way.
Pelle brings his American friends back to his small, native Swedish village to show them how they celebrate their mid-summer festival. Everyone is warm and welcoming, but the very first ritual of many unsettles the Americans to their core- the self-sacrifice of the two village elders. After a ceremonious climb up steep cliffs, they open their arms to the sky and leap off, plummeting to their deaths. A large rock below shatters their body, making their death hopefully fast and painless. And it is for the elderly woman. But the man misses his mark, his body broken in ways nobody should, but he’s still alive. The Americans look on in horror and disgust as a line of villagers take turns bashing his skull in with a large mallet to put him out of his misery. It’s at this point that the outsiders finally understand something is very wrong with this place.
As always, Aster zooms in to show the head trauma in every intimate detail; the bloody pulp of viscera, the cavernous hole where the face once was, and bits of teeth leftover to indicate this was once a human being.
Midsommar tells a very different story from Hereditary, but Aster uses its extreme gore in much the same way.
Our own William Bibbiani asked Ari Aster in an interview about his penchant for brutal head trauma, an observation Aster hadn’t quite been aware of, “I don’t know. It may be best for me not to mine it, myself. But it’s a good question. People have brought it to me and it’s a very obvious thing that I somehow have not picked up on until now.” It’s also something Aster isn’t afraid of, adding, “No, if anything there’s something particularly satisfying about taking person’s head off or collapsing a head. I don’t know. It’s like there’s something visceral about it that, I guess, it’s when imagining a violent end, that’s a fun place to go for some reason. “Fun” being an elastic word. I wouldn’t say… If I think about other films that I’ve written that I haven’t made yet, there is more head trauma to come.“
Aster has an effective grasp on how to use gore; both films aren’t excessive in its use but when it is there it packs a hefty punch. Much of that has to do with how he lingers on those violent moments. Aster’s brand of horror leans more into the emotional than anything else, and the slaughter is a tool to enhance the unsettling tone. Midsommar and Hereditary are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, but both use head trauma in primitive, shocking ways that forces his characters to confront the true horrors ahead.
Midsommar is now in theaters everywhere.