Unless you’re jonesing for a freakout, you probably won’t want to throw Bobby Krlic’s (aka The Haxan Cloak’s) Midsommar score on the turntable. It’s neither a comfortable nor a smooth listen, and independent of the visuals it’s still nearly as jarring as watching the film itself.
But the experimental composer’s arrangements also radiate a peculiar beauty, one that pairs tremendously well with Ari Aster’s grotesque Hereditary follow-up. In Midsommar, Dani (played by a fantastic Florence Pugh) is a grief-stricken college student who travels to Sweden with her emotionally unavailable boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his fellow anthropology grad school buddies (Josh, a hyper academic type who’s more or less just another take on William Jackson Harper’s The Good Place character Chidi, and the douchey horndog Mark, played convincingly by Will Poulter). They accompany their friend Pelle back home to his commune for Midsommar, a “festive” summer solstice celebration that’s pitched as potential inspiration for good thesis projects. Their stay on the idyllic ranch quickly turns from a free-spirited European excursion complete with recreational hallucinogens, flower wreaths and cultural curiosity to a sun-drenched nightmare that looks like it was shot through a Clarendon Instagram filter. It’s both a gruesome exploration of trauma and a gory, hair-raising spook, perhaps more neatly described as a really, really bad trip.
Because Midsommar projects these darknesses onto an exceedingly bright aesthetic, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the horror genre. A24 chose a strange time (peak superhero season) to release this beautiful, terrifying indie flick—yet, it still seems fit to this phase of the calendar. It’s as funny as it is scary, inciting as many laughs as screams, and it already feels like a classic. Aster just knows how to service audiences.
It’s no wonder the script seems uncannily suited to the score—Aster wrote the whole thing while listening almost exclusively to The Haxan Cloak, namely the British artist’s bold and foreboding 2013 album Excavation, which is itself sparse, twisted and sounds ripe for the screen. Ari and Krlic worked closely together to craft Midsommar’s distinct brand of paganism—they studied Swedish folklore, sampled traditionally Nordic instruments like the Hurdy Gurdy (yes, it’s real) and the key harp and even stitched together old Icelandic and Nordic texts, among others, to create their own tribal language, one that’s equal parts gorgeous and unsettling. Unassuming Swedes in braids and embroidered aprons can look awfully sadistic when chanting that unintelligible rot, cast in a creepy midnight sun and skipping around a sacrificial maypole.
The entire movie is a sonic experience. Screams, grunts and sharp breaths (the ones you’ve likely seen in a trailer or meme by now) are as important as dialogue, and cryptic ceremonial songs performed by choreographed commune-dwellers provide some of the film’s most visually striking segments. Throughout the movie’s 140 minutes, Dani experiences the extreme ups and downs of grief, and the music moves with her. The pitch-black exposition (“Gassed” in the tracklist), in which she weathers an unthinkable loss and fights for even just a smidge of tenderness from Christian, gets a stark strings treatment that turns to intense, drum-defined chaos. And when our team of travelers arrives at the supposed pastoral sanctuary and Dani momentarily escapes her emotional torture, cheered at the sight of grazing cows and children playing flutes, dreamlike tones and high-pitched violins trick the viewer into thinking this is some kind of fairytale. Just remember: it’s not.
While listening to the album version of the score (what I have already advised the easily-spooked among you not to do), a text notifcation loudly “dinged” on my computer just as the strings on “Ritual in Transfigured Time”—a piece that soundtracks a terrifying suicide ceremony early in the film—swelled to a mortifying climax, and I very nearly fell out of my chair. You should have seen me in the theater.
There’s a disturbing pluck of the harp, breathy tribal chant or sudden surge of electronica for every scary surprise, but the most interesting sound mixing happens near the film’s end, when Dani accidentally observes what has to be the weirdest sex scene of the year. Rattled and disgusted, she’s embraced by the cult’s women who mimic her screams, all of them eventually collapsing into a wailing horde. By this point, the week’s ceremonies are drawing to an end, the body count is high and we’ve lost all faith in Christian, who has been more infatuated with anthropological pursuits than Dani’s fragile state, and she just can’t take it anymore.
These shudders and screams culminate in a stunning, nine-minute swan song of crackling strings (“Fire Temple”). It’s the part of the score that most resembles that of a traditional film, but the crooked catharsis happening on screen isn’t your average resolution. If you’d like to wait and see what happens during the alarming-yet-affirming final scene for yourself, stop reading right this minute.
But to the remaining spoiler-seekers: Don’t get too distracted by the human roast that you forget to hear Krlic’s ingenious compositions. As the very last bit of Dani’s world erupts in flames, she cracks a delusional smile. In a way, this final scene is just a crummy boyfriend getting what he had coming for him, a dramatic end to the most twisted breakup movie of all time. But the real horror isn’t in solely watching the shriveling bodies and towering flames—it’s in the juxtaposition of hearing those cool, sweeping strings flare up while a sea of screams turn to laughter, and everything else to ash.
Midsommar is in theaters now. The score is out July 5 on Milan Records.