Ari Aster’s Search for the Soul of Horror

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 revealed his hand and the final half-hour of the film kicked in, I felt 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 is his search for humanity in his filmmaking. In essence, Aster is searching for the soul in his horror.

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.

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 our 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 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.

This is even more true of Aster’s sophomore effort, Midsommar. While it offers some similarly grotesque images and a narrative that is fraught with danger, 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 (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 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 explored 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.

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 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 obsessive 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 lenses?

All I know is I’ll always be in the theater opening weekend for his films (or, depending on how long quarantine continues, I’ll be renting them on day one).



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Keith LaFountaine

Writer and filmmaker from Vermont. Sometimes, I dabble with politics.