Ari Aster, writer, and director of last year’s gothic family drama “Hereditary” is back with another disturbing tale of humanity versus horror.  Though “Midsommar” shares a common pagan thread, it weaves a very different story, with far more beauty, depth, and gore.

The film follows a familiar premise:  A group of young Americans travels to a foreign country and meddles in a culture they can’t comprehend, which inevitably leads to their demise.  The Pagan Cult(ure) genre encompasses a wide range in quality, from the 1973 classic “The Wicker Man” to the gobsmackingly awful 2006 “The Wicker Man.”  But as both of those films demonstrate, the story you are telling isn’t as important as how you tell it.  “Midsommar” takes this familiar trope and amplifies it in ways that in retrospect seem obvious but haven’t been done before.

A series of jarring juxtapositions open the movie.  A storybook-esque illustration gives way to a modern city landscape as the sounds of nature are replaced with the buzzing white noise of electronics.  These and other abrupt transitions in the first act arouse discomfort while evoking thoughts on how humanity has changed over the eons.  We’re quickly introduced to Dani (Florence Pugh) who is desperately trying to reach out to those closest to her heart.  She calls her parents from her cell phone while frantically sending messages from a laptop to her sister.   After being left responseless, she hesitantly calls her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support.  Christian and his college pals consider Dani to be “needy,” “crazy,” and potentially undeserving of the support she craves.  After debating the virtues of selfishness, Christian is on the cusp of dumping her when tragedy strikes.

The tragedy prompts Christian into begrudgingly being a “good boyfriend” and sticking with Dani.  It’s painfully clear to everyone that he regards Dani as a burden and the undercurrent of guilt this produces motivates Christian to invite her along on the group’s trip to Sweden.  Their destination is a special Summer Solstice festival that takes place in a small hidden Swedish village.  Josh (William Jackson Harper) is writing his anthropology thesis on heathen cultures, and their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) offers to show them how his home town celebrates.  Mark (Will Poulter) appears to be lacking any academic motivations but is always up for meeting cute foreign women.

When the group arrives, they are struck by the beauty and hospitality of the townsfolk.  They are immediately greeted and accepted into this archaic community which feels like the perfect blend between a Renaissance Festival and Burning Man, complete with top-grade home-grown hallucinogens.  As one would expect, their awe of this unique culture slowly gives way to discomfort and fear.  The dread gnawing away at the character subconscious soon turns to horror as they witness the first of many shockingly graphic rituals.

While the summary above may do little to set the story apart from others, Ari Aster masterfully crafts this tale in unique ways.  Set in Sweden during the solstice means that the sun rarely sets, making this one of the only horror films that bask in the sunlight.  Dread doesn’t lurk in the shadows; it’s painfully visible.   It’s also rare for a movie in this genre to have so much beauty.  From the landscape to the people, to the inspired production design, it’s dripping with eye candy.  There are also moments in the movie where the paganism seems more humane and logical than our modern existence, a contrast that’s hard to miss when the two leads are named “Christian” and “Dani” which has the Old English meaning of “God is my Judge.”   Most fascinating is that while the heathens are responsible for the most horrific acts we witness, it’s the lack of empathy and love that is the villain in the story.   This focus on emotion and empathetic support would be impossible without the exceptional performance by Florence Pugh.  Aster trusts in her performance so much that there are extensive long takes, close-ups on her face, as we watch her cycle through a series of emotions.  It’s breathtaking and heartwrenching to watch.  We may only be half-way through 2019, but it’s unimaginable that she won’t receive an Oscar nod for this performance.

“Midsommar” is a long, harrowing story, with equal dabs of humor and grotesqueness.  Unlike most horror films, it’s beauty, and moral make it worth the experience, and somehow leaves you feeling drained, but with a smile on your face.