How Ari Aster Created Some of the Best Modern Horror
By now, several years after the release of his feature film debut, Ari Aster is no doubt a well-known name among horror lovers and general film buffs. While his repertoire is primarily made up of his two most popular titles, Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), the beautiful cinematography coupled with the unrelenting, almost unbearable atmosphere Aster is so skilled in not only creating, but maintaining, has helped to cement his position as a master of modern horror.
Not everyone will agree with Aster being given such a title — the question of whether his films are actually any good remains controversial, and a glance at the box office figures don’t help my point. While, in some senses, both of his films would be considered financial successes, with Hereditary making eight times its budget at the box office and Midsommar making five, those numbers pale in comparison to other contemporary horrors. Insidious (2010) made a staggering 66 times its budget at the box office, Annabelle (2014) made 39 times its budget, and Lights Out (2016) made 30. Not only that, but all three of those films had much lower budgets than both of Aster’s.
If we’re being generous, we might give Aster credit by taking into consideration that Hereditary was his directorial debut, and that we can’t expect too much from such a fresh face. However, we also have to consider that Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out (2017), made an astounding 56 times its budget at the box office, and that budget was half the amount allocated to Midsommar. While Peele’s second film, Us(2019), didn’t do nearly so well, making 12 times its budget on a much higher amount, the fact remains that Aster’s work appears to be more niche than widely popular.
However, as undeniably important as money is when it comes to the gilded halls of Hollywood, I think we can all agree that, when reflecting on what makes any film worth watching, profits don’t tend to feature. When we recommend films to people, we don’t normally include talk of budgets or the millions it might have made at the box office. We talk about atmosphere, setting, dialogue, the acting — and it’s these features that I’ll be focusing on when explaining just why Ari Aster deserves that above title.
What makes a film worth watching is a difficult question because at its core, film is an art medium, and art is subjective. There’s no way of getting around the fact that people will like what they like and dislike what they dislike, sometimes without reason. Deciding whether a film is good or not, and in particular, a good horror or not, will depend on a number of factors, like what kind of scare you’re looking for, if it’s a sequel from a franchise you already know and love, how much sense the plot makes, and if the ending is wrapped up nicely with minimal death. Believe it or not, many people like a happy ending to their horror, and many contemporary horrors are more than glad to give it to them.
But while Aster’s films may not be crowd-pleasers, they certainly demonstrate brilliant features of filmmaking and storytelling that set them apart from other contemporary horrors. From the very first scene of Hereditary, where the Graham family are running late for the funeral of Annie’s eccentric mother, we feel a sense of dysfunction and unease that rattles us, and keeps us that way with continued nods to the uncanny — Charlie’s strange tongue-clicking, the strain felt between Peter and his mother, and Annie’s cautious suspicion of her dead mother. The true moments of shock, like both Charlie and Annie’s decapitation, Steve’s immolation and the decomposing corpse of the family’s dead matriarch, are presented to us quite matter-of-factly, in all their gruesome glory.
Not only is the atmosphere of Hereditary immaculate, the story is delivered through relatable and well-fleshed-out characters. This family feel real, and display archetypal features of the family that we can all surely relate to or understand to some degree, from the exasperated patriarch and the withdrawn, troubled mother, all the way to the detached, equally troubled children. Brilliant acting and scriptwriting aside, the film is thoughtful with its plot — the titular theme of inheritance is paid careful attention through subtle foreshadowing and clever storytelling, and the concept of King Paimon is drawn directly from real-life demonology.
Much of the same can be said of Midsommar — that same sense of disquiet carries through the entire film, from the horrifying murder-suicide committed by Dani’s sister at the beginning of the film, right up to the climax where Dani, swathed in flowers, watches Christian’s fiery death play out. Seeds of the ending and thus, the sinister motives of The Hårga, are planted deliberately throughout, sometimes in subtle ways — as in the wall art in Dani’s room featuring a giant bear — and other times in more obvious ways — when Christian finds a hair in his meal, we can be sure from previous scenes that Maja is the one who put it there.
From that, it’s understood that the film isn’t simply a vehicle for scares, but weaves an emotive, fascinating story with themes aplenty. If scares were the goal at large, Aster’s films would more closely resemble movies like those of the The Conjuring franchise, and while those films certainly have their place, there’s no denying that they feel mass produced, pulled and packaged straight from Hollywood’s conveyor belt with the primary goal of making as much profit as possible.
James Wan, who had the success of the Saw (2004) franchise to boost his later films, Insidious and The Conjuring (2013), along with their sequels, provides very specific scares inside a very specific formula in the aforementioned movies. The protagonist faces a problem, namely in the form of a fancy new demon, and the problem is soon overcome after many a jump-scare. Wan’s movies, which also include the Annabelle franchise and The Nun (2018), tend to follow a pattern that makes for easy, light-hearted watching — or as easy and light-hearted as horror can reasonably get.
The Conjuring tells the age-old story of a family moving into a new house and experiencing paranormal phenomena, an idea explored years before in films like Poltergeist (1982) and The Amityville Horror (1979). Of course, nothing is completely original anymore — Midsommar itself could be considered a strange descendant of The Wicker Man (1973) — and any film will contain a cliché or two, but when an entire plotline is a cliché in and of itself, it immediately exposes lazy writing. Couple that with the horror relying completely on jump-scares and you’ve got several movies that are, to say the least, more style over substance.
Again, films like that certainly have their place. If there’s at least one great thing about going to the cinema, it’s that you can shut off for a couple of hours and simply enjoy yourself. Films that make you work to understand and keep up with the plot are not necessarily fun — however, Aster’s films certainly are a breath of fresh air for the horror genre in film, particularly modern horror. Between 2010 and 2017, it almost felt as if horror was growing stale, with the same tropes and clichés being utilised again and again. Naturally, there were the odd exceptions of brilliant films like The Cabin in The Woods (2011), Creep (2014), and It Follows (2014), that all tried to do something different with the genre, but for the most part, horror was sorely lacking.
Both Hereditary and Midsommar break the mould because they mess so spectacularly with our concept of horror and challenge us on our expectations. Sure, cults like The Hårga are terrifying and, admittedly, as clichéd as the serial killer, but consider how they are presented to us. There are very few scenes in darkness, or even semi-darkness. The majority of the film takes place in bright, almost blinding daylight, set in glorious, rural Sweden with (seemingly) kindly folk in white robes milling about. The whole thing, visually, smacks more of the kind of painting your grandmother would hang in her living room than a horror film and yet, the film is successful in scaring us anyway — and scaring people in the middle of a bright, summer’s day, without the fail-safe of the pitch-black night, is no mean feat.
Not only that, but Aster makes it quite clear in both of his films that no character is sacred. We might expect most horror films to placate the audience by saving their characters at the last minute, or the protagonist at the very least — with most horrors receiving sequels nowadays, it makes sense to keep familiar faces around to sell more tickets, but it quickly becomes tiresome. There are no stakes when we’re shown characters surviving the seemingly impossible again and again, and a horror film without stakes loses precious tension. In both of Aster’s films, we see almost the entire cast killed off in brutal fashion. While Dani survives in Midsommar, we still have to wonder just how safe she really is in the hands of The Hårga, and while Peter is physically alive at the end of Hereditary, we can be quite sure that there isn’t really any Peter left within.
The theme of fearing our parental figures or even our children, as in Hereditary, has certainly been done before — The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) both gave us very good reason for being wary of kids, and The Shining (1980) was a brilliant exploration of another dysfunctional family unit. But the way this theme is developed in Hereditary, layer upon layer, with each character essentially suffering through their own separate plotlines, is what sets it apart — Steve and his exasperation at his wife’s perceived madness, Peter’s fear and confusion surrounding his mother’s sleepwalking habits and Annie, with her uncertainty around being a mother and her unease around her own mother, and the tragedy of her brother’s bizarre death. There are questions, followed by more questions within the film — how did the cult keep power over the Graham family? Was Charlie possessed by Paimon all along? — and to some extent, an explanation can only be found through how you, the viewer, choose to interpret the film’s events.
So, while fearing our parental figures isn’t a new concept, the idea of our entire family tree haunting us, no matter how we try to run from it, is certainly a new play on it. It’s these interesting twists on old ideas that are serving to freshen up the horror genre tenfold, with Jordan Peele’s movies just as inventive and inspiring. Get Out completely reimagines the notion of possession, throwing out hackneyed ghosts and demons in favour of our fellow human beings with a strong socio-political message. Us is a wildly different take on the premise of a home invasion with doppelgangers thrown in to boot. There’s nothing wrong with basing your plot on a cliché — again, nothing’s original anymore anyway — as long as you plan to reinvent that cliché while you’re at it.
Without trying to sound pretentious, it almost feels as if the landscape of modern horror has become laden with tropes and lazy writing. Too many recent films rely on shock value — jump-scares, or gruesome subject matter, both of which can cheapen an otherwise decent film, a good example of this being Sinister (2012). And sure, horror is hard to write and no doubt even harder to direct, but countless classic horror movies over the past century have shown us that it’s not impossible. And the likes of new talent like Ari Aster prove that horror isn’t a finite resource — that reinventing the wheel can be done again and again, and in spectacular fashion.