ari aster

Ari Aster's Search for the Soul of Horror by Keith LaFountaine

When I first saw Hereditary, I was mixed. On one hand, I appreciated the eerie imagery and the coy, teasing nature of the film. It maintained such a heightened level of tension and fear that I was constantly looking over my own shoulder (or up at my ceiling, later that evening) waiting for the other shoe to drop. Yet, when that did occur, when Aster finally revealed his hand and the final half-hour of the film kicked in, I felt almost betrayed. This was what I had been expecting in many ways, and yet to see it visualized on the screen felt like a cop-out, like Aster was trading the family drama, which had made the film so unique and accessible, in for something more pedestrian.

I’ve had time to reflect on Hereditary since that initial viewing, and it has grown on me considerably. While my original review for the film pinned it at 3 and 1/2 stars, I would now put it at 4 stars (perhaps even verging on 4 and 1/2). There are a few reasons for this, but the main one — and the one that this blog post is centered around — is his search for humanity in his filmmaking. In essence, Aster is searching for the soul in his horror.


I. Hereditary and the Tragedy of Family


There are a lot of quotes out there from Ari Aster, particularly about his relationship with horror. One of my personal favorites, “I often cling to dead things.”, perfectly preceded his sophomore film, Midsommar. Yet, the most interesting quote of his that I’ve found is also one of his most succinct.

I don’t necessarily consider myself a horror filmmaker.

Considering both of Ari Aster’s films are, in the most overt terms, horror films, this quote may seem odd. Yet, I think they also speak to the truth of what Aster is doing. This can particularly be seen in Hereditary, which I would argue is more of a horror film than his sophomore effort.

For two acts, Hereditary is a family drama more than anything else. Horror lingers on the periphery of the film. Occasionally we’ll catch a glimpse of what looks like a ghost, or we’ll meet a character who doesn’t quite make sense. We struggle to catch out breath after the film throws us a horrifying curveball, and we grieve with this family as its tragedy unfolds. In this way, Hereditary works more along the lines of something cold and harrowing, like an eerie combination of Lynch’s harrowing visuals in Eraserhead and the uncomfortable drama of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. It’s in this exploration of grief that we see the first sign of Aster’s true vision, and the reason why the above quote is understandable.

Because yes, Hereditary is a horror film in the way we understand it: it’s scary, it deals with the supernatural, and it involves a lot of eerie, dark corners down which we often find something unpleasant. Yet, it’s also a dramatic tragedy: the visualization of a family overcome by grief, splintered apart by distrust, and eventually torn asunder by, if anything else, a desire to reconnect. The fact that it also includes demons and ghosts is more akin to the icing on the cake than the sponge itself.


II. A Fractured Relationship Is the True Horror In Midsommar


This is even more true of Aster’s sophomore effort, Midsommar. While it offers some similarly grotesque images and a harrowing narrative that is fraught with danger and horror, it’s not really a horror film — not in the way we would consider something like The Conjuring a horror movie. Aster’s goal is not to scare us, but to explore the deterioration of a relationship.

It’s here again that my previous comparison to Lynch and Bergman appears again (though, of course, I doubt Aster himself was consciously choosing this combination of styles; rather, it’s probably my personal adoration of these directors’ works). There are moments of genuine tension and fear, where I found myself gripping the edges of my theater seat. However, those moments are not what dominate the film — in fact, I would argue that horror elements dominate Midsommar much less than they did Hereditary. Aster keeps his focus on the broken relationship between his two main characters front and center. It’s their story.

This interpersonal story is what helps set Aster apart from other filmmakers out there in the horror landscape. You can feel the palpable bittersweetness in this film, particularly in its opening scene. As the film goes on, and we see the fracturing of this couple, I’m reminded of key scenes in the aforementioned Scenes from a Marriage. In Bergman’s film, the deterioration of the relationship is shown in words. It’s explore in arguments. In Aster’s film, it’s visualized in micro-moments, in glances, in harsh tones and inflections. It’s much more subtle, yet the result is similar.


III. More Than Just Jump Scares


With this, we come to the central difference between Aster and other filmmakers in the horror genre: he is searching for the very soul of horror. Rather the reveling in genre, he is using horror elements to explore humanity, to view what it means to be a person, to visualize these emotions of grief and loneliness that we grapple with on a daily basis.

While that may seem pretty ordinary in and of itself, it’s honestly a breath of fresh air for horror junkies like myself. When Aster is behind the camera, I know I’m not going to be subjected to cheap, deafening jump-scares. I know that there are going to be interesting characters at play, instead of cookie-cutter caricatures. I know that there is going to be emotional depth and resonance, in addition to scares.

Aster’s filmmaking recalls a certain type of horror film — Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Shining, Don’t Look Now, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These horror films were scary, but they were also incredibly human. They explored the humanity behind the horror, the people behind the ghosts, aliens, and demons. That’s what gave them the legendary status they enjoy to this day. Even when you look at some of the more propulsive slashers that used to come out, like Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, or foreign horror films like Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, you can see this undercurrent of relatable humanism.

Sadly, this seems to be something we are missing in the horror genre. While big blockbuster horror franchises focus on adding to their cinematic universes, and while Hollywood continues its obssessive desire to remake every old property in sight, Aster is leading the charge to bring unique, honest, reflective horror cinema to the screen. He’s not alone, either! Jennifer Kent, Robert Eggars, David Robert Mitchell, and many other filmmakers are right beside Aster in this attempt to bring unique, profound horror filmmaking back to the silver screen.

Horror has not died, let me get that straight. While I prefer films that have a bit of depth to them, I will always enjoy something bloody and ridiculous, like the Friday the 13th franchise. There are tons of independent efforts that fly under the radar, and I even enjoy some of the big blockbuster films that get released. I just like to appreciate effort when I notice it, and Aster is certainly putting in the effort.

Who knows what he’ll do next, whether it’s horror or he decides to jump out of the genre and explore other stories, told through other lessons.

All I know is I’ll always be in the theater opening weekend for his films.

"Midsommar" Is An Impressive, Challenging Sophomore Effort from Ari Aster by Keith LaFountaine

The most difficult thing about any sophomore effort -- especially one that is following a critically and commercially successful debut like Hereditary -- is that it often cements what your entire career looks like. We've seen this a thousand times over, perhaps best exemplified by M. Night Shyamalan (who is now relegated to sticking twists at the end of every film because of the commercial success that The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable garnered). As such, the opening moments of Midsommar had me on the edge of my seat.

The set up is rather simple: our protagonist Dani has received a horrifying message from her sister, who is bi-polar. She tries to call her parents to tell them about it, but they don't pick up. She then calls her boyfriend Christian, asking him to come over and hang out as she struggles with the fear that something horrible has happened to her sister. This entire sequence is filmed in a long close-up, one Aster used with great efficacy in Hereditary, and the entire time I was expecting the camera to cut away to a wide shot where he would reveal something terrifying lingering in the corner of the frame. He's not the kind of director who would resort to a jump-scare, but he enjoys toying with expectations, littering the frame with horror imagery without revealing his hand until the last second.

Yet, to my surprise, this scene was just a phone call: a tense one, that manages to deliver a ton of character depth and pathos thanks to Florence Pugh's nuanced performance. This change signals the tonal differences between these films: while Hereditary was always a family drama at its core, it wore its horror on its sleeve and never tried to hide that there was something supernatural going on in the house. I would argue that Midsommar is less of a horror film than Hereditary, or at least the former film is a different kind of horror -- one that is more influenced by The Wicker Man and Black Narcisssus.

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In many ways, Midsommar is extremely ambitious. It asks a lot of its audience, and its horror elements never overwhelm the film, even toward the final act. Rather, Aster allows the horror to flow through the main characters, through Dani and Christian's embattled relationship, through the tensions that come with displacement, confusion, and genuinely terrifying circumstances. In essence, this is a film that is exploring not folk horror, but also regret and sorrow, anger and frustration.

There is a key moment in Midsommar (minor spoilers ahead) where Dani has drank some tea infused with shrooms. Her trip is going just fine, that is until she overhears the word "family" spoken by one of Christian's friends. That one word is enough to turn her trip into something horrifying and disorienting, where everyone is laughing at her. She hides in an outhouse, and for a brief moment we see the horrifying image of her sister, a hose duct taped to her mouth. It's a genuinely eerie image (one that a lesser horror film would have introduced with an ear-splitting jump scare, and maybe even a jump-cut close-up of her face), but its presence is not just to scare the viewer -- it informs Dani's character. It gives us a lens into her grief. It confirms that this is not just a horror movie, but also an exploration of grief.

Don't get me wrong, there are some genuinely terrifying moments in the film, including some liberal usages of blood and gore. Yet the final moments of the film brings everything full circle in a haunting twist that will certainly divide audiences (if my theater was anything to go off).

Perhaps the best way to describe Midsommar is "risky". It's not a typical sophomore film. While we can always feel Aster's creative touch on the screen, whether through the deliberate editing, the haunting soundscape, or the jarring visuals, but he also experimented a lot with this film. Some of that experimentation yields great and impactful results, while others lend to the films bloated runtime (one of the main issues the film has). Still, it takes bravery to put your career on the line with a film as ambitious, expansive, and challenging as this one.

Not everyone will love Midsommar. As I was leaving the theater, I heard a few people contend "that wasn't a horror film." In some ways, they are right. This is not a jump-scare filled, overbearing horror effort. Some may call this elevated horror (a misused term that has risen with the advent of films like Hereditary and The Witch), but I think the need to label this as a specific genre is missing the point. Aster enjoys using horror as a lens through which to view humans, to see what we do when presented with specific things like grief and the paranormal. In this way, he is using horror as a tool, not necessarily wrapping himself in the blanket of genre filmmaking. Midsommar is a horror film insofar as it is a film that uses horror to tell its story. The story, and the character of Dani, are truly what is front and center though. It's her story, and viewers should be wary not to lose sight of that.


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“MIDSOMMAR” ★★★★

written and directed by ARI ASTER

Rated R || 147 MIN ||Released on 3 July 2019