Sunday 20 June 2021

Solstice (2008)

Director: Daniel Myrick
Writers: Daniel Myrick, Martin Musatov and Ethan Erwin, based on the 2003 film Midsommer, by Carsten Myllerup and Rasmus Heisterberg
Stars: Elisabeth Harnois, Shawn Ashmore, Hilarie Burton, Amanda Seyfreid, Tyler Hoechlin, Matt O’Leary and R. Lee Ermey

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

I tend to avoid the inevitable American remakes of foreign horror films that succeed enough to be noticed by the mainstream, but I saw Solstice before I realised that it was based on a Danish film called Midsommer, and enjoyed its translation to the Louisiana bayou enough that I’m tentative about seeking out the original in case it spoils this one. In other major instances, such as The Vanishing or Let the Right One In, I saw the original first and don’t have that problem. Another reason why I’m not the logical audience for Solstice is that it’s a Daniel Myrick film, he who started out so successfully with The Blair Witch Project, surely the most popular horror movie I’ve never seen, on account of my having serious problems with shakycam. He hasn’t had the most prolific career, with few credits in between that debut in 1999 and a burst of activity around 2007 and 2008, but this should have brought him opportunity, as it’s a solid psychological drama that’s wildly different from what he was known for. Then again, maybe that was the problem.

The majority of the psychological weight stems from the inherent connection between twins, one of whom we meet immediately. She’s Megan Thomas and we meet her at the grave of her sister Sophie, who died in 2005 at the age of only eighteen. We know that we’re in New Orleans because the graves are all above ground vaults, on account of the water table being so high that burying them the usual six feet under would just mean floating coffins. How horror movie is that? Anyway, Sophie died on Christmas Eve and we join Megan the following June as she prepares to head out with friends to her family’s plantation house at Nowell Lake to both help get her mind off things and allow her the opportunity to pack up Sophie’s belongings. As you might imagine, doing both of those at the same time is going to be quite the accomplishment, because everything sparks a memory. And that’s before she decides to hook up with Christian, who used to be Sophie’s boyfriend. Sure, they’d split up before her suicide but how awkward can you get?

I don’t know how much the Danish original dabbled in horror tropes, but Myrick, who also adapted its script with Martin Musatov and Ethan Erwin, certainly likes them. Megan and her friends stop at the only store in the vicinity of the house to pick up supplies and some higher force wants her to read the current copy of the Fortean Times, especially an article on the Summer Solstice called “The Dead Speak”. They almost drive into R. Lee Ermey, which is probably not a good idea. It’s great to see him in a part other than Drill Sergeant or Sheriff, though; it’s not the biggest role he’s ever had but it has a haunting presence that’s entirely appropriate for where we end up. No, he’s not a ghost, like he was in The Frighteners. Best of all, the car stalls just before a little bridge, right after the driver jokes that this is the point in a movie where they’d run out of gas and the guys would get raped by the inbred locals. He isn’t out of gas and the car just had a service, so that’s freaky. Fortunately, there are no inbred locals and they drive on.

Thus far, this clearly isn’t your usual cabin in the woods story. Sure, the girls are all hot and bothered over the new guy at the store but this is far from the standard sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll party trip. Sure, Mark, Alicia’s boyfriend, and Christian can be jackasses but they’re mostly considerate, polite and well-behaved. If this is what they get up to on a trip away with the girls, then they’re the sort of young gentlemen you’d have no trouble taking home to meet your parents. Alicia’s nice too and, after Megan spends a night with Christian, Zoe talks to him about her best friend being really vulnerable right now. They’re all good kids and Sophie may have been a good kid too, though she clearly had problems because we learn about some of those in flashback. Elisabeth Harnois gets to play both Megan and Sophie and does a nice job of it, ensuring that they’re different in mannerisms as well as hair colour, though a bit of clever work with lighting and make up helps delineate them too.

The tone is also a lot more unsettling than it is scary and part of that comes from how straight it’s all played, even with inevitable jump scares that are, quite frankly, responsible for the worst parts of the movie and should have been seriously minimised. Instead of a score, we often hear the bayou—wind and insects and birds—which is neatly effective. The script plays up the awkwardness of the situation; when Mark accidentally spills wine on Alicia’s shirt, it’s a bigger deal because it’s one that Sophie gave her. Some of it seems supernatural though. Sophie’s teddybear keyfob keeps showing up in surprising places, even though Megan packed it into a box and taped it shut. When she goes for a run and sticks a foot into some quicksand, she ends up with a cut on her hand exactly as she imagined the previous night. It’s probably fair to say that these are clichéd scares, but they work in this context because they’re unsettling, especially while Megan is suffering from survivor guilt. Why didn’t she see it coming? Maybe this is all in her head.

But there are still mysteries to point a way forward. At the Christmas Eve party, Sophie went upstairs and compulsively washed her hands. Why did she commit suicide anyway? Her circle seems far too well adjusted for that. And why does Megan recognise a hat in Ermey’s truck when she passes it after her run? He’s Leonard, he lives over the lake and he isn’t as creepy as everyone tries to make out but we do have questions, especially with everything else going on. So where do we find answers? Well, the Fortean Times piece suggests that the dead are closest to the living during the Summer Solstice, which is tomorrow at this point in the movie. We learn during another trip to the store that the hot clerk there, Nick, is from voodoo stock. His grandma could talk to the dead, especially around the solstice and, when Megan invites him to their big dinner that night, we start to learn about what he can do from Cajun folklore to help her out. I’d have preferred more of this, but what we get is handled well enough and it very much leads us forward.

This is definitely a slowburner of a movie, something that naysaying critics have focused on, but I didn’t have a problem with that. It never drags and it builds slowly and surely as a psychological trip and the story is carefully constructed and well interpreted by the actors, especially Harnois and Ermey, who epitomise the tone their characters represent. Watching a second time, I find that I appreciated it even more. We get all the foreshadowing we need to understand the real story we’re being told, even though it isn’t the one we think it is for the longest time. We’re also led down a different path that’s entirely appropriate and emotionally valid, one that deepens some of the characters and adds weight to what’s to come. There are points where this feels like a Poe-esque tale of psychological guilt, both from characters who damn well ought to feel guilty and characters who do so only because of who they are and who they’ve lost. I know what it’s like to lose a loved one, but I can’t imagine what it would be like for that to be my twin.

And, while the holiday that keeps getting mentioned is St. John’s Eve, everything comes to a head on the Summer Solstice. There’s actually quite a lot going on at this point in the year, between the solstice and the quarter day. The solstice is the longest day of the year, the day when the appropriate pole for the hemisphere reaches its maximum tilt towards the sun. That’s 21st June. St. John’s Eve happens two days later on the 23rd, a traditional night for bonfires and the night on which Mussorgsky’s famous Night on Bald Mountain was set. In Denmark, which produced the original version of this film, it’s celebrated rather like Walpurgisnacht in other countries; it’s when the Danes believe that witches gather on the Brocken. The actual feast day of St. John, as in John the Baptist, a key figure in Christianity, Islam and others, is on the 24th, which is Midsummer Day, traditionally the middle of summer. Thus, a relatively brief period of about five days becomes massively important to a wide variety of religions, cultures and traditions.

Sadly, while the Summer Solstice is crucial to this story, it’s not explained or explored as much as I’d have liked. We never find out why Megan’s family has a traditional St. John’s Eve trip to the bayou, beyond learning that her mother is a cultural anthropologist and thus celebrates pretty much every holiday in the book. Our guide to the rituals and traditions we experience is Nick, but we’re not given much background into why he knows this stuff, beyond his grandma having voodoo powers. He mentions a Cajun belief about twins, which sees them as two halves of one soul, but his explanation is over almost as soon as it’s begun and we’ll miss it if we blink. He leads a ritual in the water, which is supposedly the best conductor between our world and the next, everyone holding hands and Nick pouring some wine inside the circle, but, if the details were explained, I blinked and missed them too. At least I’ll be able to look up the tradition of disposing of objects cursed with voodoo by wrapping them in white cloth and burying them.

And, as you might have guessed, the biggest problems this movie has don’t stem from anything it does but from what it doesn’t do. Most of what it does is effective, except for the jump scares which are cheap and ignorable early and annoying late. One spoils the best shot of the entire movie, in which Megan is walking towards a barn; she stops but her shadow carries on. That’s neatly freaky but then a pointless jump scare steals the moment away. It’s what it doesn’t do that would have made the movie better: some more exploration and explanation of the rituals and the date; some more background and depth for Megan’s friends, who start to appear as much decoration as emotional support; and some more for R. Lee Ermey to do, given that we never buy into the creepy angle we find ourselves fed early. He’s obviously important to the story and the reasons for that could have been raised earlier without being any sort of problem for the grand direction of the picture. Emotionally, it would have been worth it.

And so, having enjoyed this more than once but being fully aware of its flaws, I wonder if I should get round to biting the bullet and watching the original film. Midsommer was well received in Denmark and praised on many fronts; it was successful soon enough for the American remake rights to be snapped up only six months later. I wonder how much I would gain from watching a feature like this with a cast that I don’t recognise in the slightest. Here, I knew Harnois from the original C.S.I. and Ermey from a slew of places, while all of Megan’s photogenic friends have gone on to be recognisable: Shawn Ashmore from the X-Men series, Amanda Seyfried from Les Misérables, Hilarie Burton from One Tree Hill, Matt O’Leary from the Spy Kids films and Tyler Hoechlin from the Arrowverse, where he’s both Clark Kent and Superman. Mostly, though, there are so many ways in which Europeans celebrate Midsummer that I’d struggle to believe that there isn’t a lot more cultural grounding in the original film and I’d really like to see that.

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