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‘Midsommar’ Is a Deranged Delight, but It’s Far From the First Freak-out Movie: Here Are the Essentials

A brief history of movies that make us want to tear our eyes out … in a good way

Ringer illustration

One of my favorite movie memories was inappropriate, unexpected, and mind-altering. When I was 13, I’d made a new friend, an older kid, who seemed to have access to a vast world that was inconceivable to me. He was a locus for dingy and disreputable strains of outsider culture. Hardcore punk. Underground wrestling. And disturbing movies. Lots and lots of disturbing movies. I didn’t have older siblings or cousins, no shepherds to the illicit and unknown. I was a simple kid who liked watching baseball, riding my bike, and hanging out at the library for hours at a time. A real rube. In the suburbs, cultural expansion needs a catalyst. In my case, that catalyst was the friend with the VHS connect.

After months of his proselytizing for two horror movies I’d not seen nor heard of, we set a date to watch both in succession on the VCR in my basement, which was a sort of shrine to basic teen nerdery, the place where I watched Blazing Saddles and The Breakfast Club constantly. The shrine was sullied that day. The first movie, Joel M. Reed’s Bloodsucking Freaks, was not my thing at all. A 1976 shock-comedy with grim production values and a grisly-sadomasochistic streak, I cringed my way through its 91 minutes as my friend gazed admiringly, occasionally checking in to seek my approval. I understood why it was transgressive and different from, say, Tobe Hooper’s The Mangler, a mediocre horror movie released earlier that year. But Bloodsucking Freaks didn’t seem daring—it just seemed like junk. What I’d come to understand as schlock. Then we popped in the next tape.

I was radicalized by Profondo Rosso. Dario Argento’s sleek, severe slasher is an explosion of color, glamour, and viscera. Everything about it cooked my noodle—Goblin’s hallucinatory synth score, the operatic kill scenes, the leather fetish, the English actor David Hemmings appearing as the only non-dubbed character in the whole film. It was confusing and beautiful and so gross. And fun. To that moment, there had been nothing in my life that came close to the sensation of watching that movie—the disgust commingling with fascination, the admiration for beauty throbbing beside the Catholic shame. My heart raced, my anxiety soared. It changed the way I saw movies forever. Simply put, I freaked out. Profondo Rosso—which translated to Deep Red, though my friend never, ever used the English title—was a portal to a world of horror, foreign films, ‘70s cinema, outsider art, and the broadly unseemly. I’m grateful to my friend for showing it to me, wherever he is now. (Probably watching a coed getting hacked to bits somewhere.) Without him, I’d probably still be watching The Breakfast Club.

I have been loyal to the freak-out ever since. There is no movie sensation that excites me more than knowing that other people in the audience are uncomfortable, stunned, or gleefully marveling like me. I love to laugh at horror—I can feel myself smiling, slowly and more widely, as a scene grows more intense, gruesome and utterly depraved. I’m sort of the invert of my colleague Rob Harvilla, who would rather read a horror movie’s Wiki than sit through a single second. The less I know the better. Pour it on. My demands are simple for freak-out movies: eviscerate me with your glimmering blades, haunt my grandchildren with your vengeful ghouls, burn my soul with your satanic majesty. I prostrate before thee.

We are lucky to have a new freak-out this year, writer-director Ari Aster’s Midsommar, perhaps the brightest, most convulsive break-up movie ever made. Aster has turned the dial to the left on his second movie, after the family psychodrama of 2018’s Hereditary, a movie with a similar freak-out vibe that employed more classical horror tropes. Midsommar is slower, hazier, funnier, more fearless and thus more ripe for the freaks. It doesn’t have the self-hugging shock finale of its predecessor. There’s an inevitable denouement that can be seen from a mile away but still concludes right up in your face, smirking all the way home. I recommend Midsommar in the same way I’d recommend wheatgrass—it’s sort of revolting, but it’s also green, fresh, and it fights bacteria.

There are some filmmakers for whom the freak-out is elemental—think David Lynch or Darren Aronofsky. There are some who instigate by design—Oliver Stone, Roman Polanski, Lars von Trier. There are others who just sort of stumble into the vibe, blissfully enraptured by their own cracked view of the world—hello, John Waters!

I see five types of freak-outs in recent movie history, each one a gift.

The Ghastly Hit

Key freak-out: A Clockwork Orange

These are the most obvious, the movies that permeate culture only to be rejected by it. Stanley Kubrick famously banned his own film in the U.K. after a series of violent attacks inspired by the film. That didn’t stop the film from becoming a cultural institution—misappropriated, misinterpreted, and used as the inspiration for innumerable Halloween costumes. The Ghastly Hit has the veneer of the mainstream, by dint of its filmmaker or its word of mouth or the sheer outrage it inspires among conservative politicians. Kubrick is the master—see: The Shining and Full Metal Jacket—but he has many imitators.

Other examples: The Shining; Rosemary’s Baby; Oldboy; Reservoir Dogs; Natural Born Killers; RoboCop; Black Swan; The Thing

The Fake-out Phenomenon

Key freak-out: Don’t Look Now

This is less a qualitative category than a place for the movies that seem to be real or appear to have been made under extraordinary, perhaps unethical duress. I’d first heard about the late Nicolas Roeg’s masterwork of dread and grief, Don’t Look Now, because a friend insisted the sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s characters was not simulated. The rumor has long since been debunked, but it has given the film, independent of its artistic achievement, a unique sort of cult status. The Is it real? factor of these movies is always a hysterical and often ridiculous convention or a marketing gambit (See: The Blair Witch Project), but it has utility. Smaller films made with risky stories often need a hook. Some of these films are worse off for their ingenuity and dedication to the real. For every Kids, there are 100 Bloodsucking Freaks. But a fake-out rarely hurts.

Other examples: Kids; The Last House on the Left; The Blair Witch Project; Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom; Man Bites Dog; Irréversible; Texas Chainsaw Massacre; The Devils; Dogville

The Midnight Movie

Key freak-out: Pink Flamingos

I’ll be honest: These are rarely my bag. The idea of going to a movie and talking back at it, dressing up for it, has never held much appeal. But I know how meaningful they are. They recharge the meaning of a movie, build community, and drive business for small theaters. The late producer Ben Barenholtz, who died just last month, memorably discovered and platformed the work of filmmakers like the Coen brothers and David Lynch. And he was a maestro of midnight. “When I first started playing midnights,” Barenholtz told The New York Times in 1995, “I was told by the experts: ‘Who’s going to come see a film at midnight? You’re out of your mind.’ But within two years, there wasn’t a city in the country that didn’t have a midnight movie going.”

Other examples: El Topo; Donnie Darko; The Rocky Horror Picture Show; The Harder They Come; Cannibal! The Musical; The Evil Dead; Plan 9 From Outer Space; Cannibal Holocaust; The Human Centipede; House; The Room

The Big Swing … and Miss?

Key freak-out: Altered States

My absolute favorite movie experience—when something so strange, wicked, or insensitive aims for something beyond the midnight movie crowd, and doesn’t quite get there. These films build toward a kind of commentary—Ken Russell, the grand poobah of the freak-out, collaborated with the writer Paddy Chayefsky (until Chayefsky bailed) on on this unhinged and exhilarating exegesis on mind expansion, evolution, the corrupting influence of corporate America on science, sex, God, and transubstantiation. And also William Hurt’s war with his own vanity. Altered States aspires to sweeping generational importance, but is also a movie in which a monkey-wolf-caveman rampages through a zoo and eats a live sheep. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Other examples: Videodrome; Gummo; Mother!; Wake in Fright; Lost Highway; Society

The Arthouse Triumph

Key freak-out: Eraserhead

David Lynch is the everlasting figure of this type, a filmmaker looking to pervert our expectations and reassess the idea of normal in each of his films. Lynch has achieved a rare kind of respectability among the freak-out brigade, simultaneously Oscar-nominated and still widely misunderstood. There are a great many critics who worship at his feet without having a grip on what he’s trying to convey in his work. He is both accessible and elusive. There are authentically freaky things in his films—the diner scene in Mulholland Drive comes to mind—but there is also an ethereal quality that separates his movies from even your standard-operating Kubrick. Before it was chic, Lynch was a mood.

Other examples: Blue Velvet; Possession; Happiness; Audition; Dogtooth; Holy Motors; Kill List; Mandy