Featured Films: Ari Aster and the Drama of Horror, by Justin Bearden
Content warning: Sexual abuse. This article also contains spoilers.
Around 2014, a friend told me to watch Ari Aster’s short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.
“What’s it about?”
“You’ll just have to see it for yourself.”
Curious, I searched online for reviews. “Disturbing.” “Appalling.” "Unforgettable—and not in a good sense.” For only a half an hour of run-time, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons has more shocking twists and turns than most prefer. While I wouldn’t recommend it to the casual movie-goer, this thesis film launched screenwriter and director Ari Aster’s career.
When asked where the inspiration for this bizarre story originated, Aster told Film Comment, “I just thought, what’s the worst thing I can make at AFI? To ask, what can’t I do? And why can’t I do it?” To break rules and defy expectations of a film is Aster’s storytelling philosophy. In an interview with IndieWire, he confessed his struggle to maintain momentum in the industry after this moderately successful debut. “The headlines were like, ‘Jew Makes Black Incest Movie.’ It was like, all right, well, now I have to do something here because it is catching on like wildfire, not as a movie but as a wrong kind of provocation.”
Aster would write many other scripts before A24 picked up his screenplay for Hereditary in 2017. Hereditary released in 2018 to critical acclaim and grossed a total $80.2 million at the box office as compared to other A24 horror films The Witch ($40.4m) and It Comes at Night ($19.7m). Aster was credited to have made one of the most terrifying horror films in a decade, but he was more invested in the dramatic nuances of storytelling than the fear factor.
“When people ask if I consider myself a horror director, I’ll be quick to respond with a very clear no, absolutely not. Because there are so few horror films that for me live up to what the genre can do.”
When asked about the creative process behind the film, Aster told NPR, "I wanted the film to function first as a vivid family drama before I even bothered attending to the horror elements. This family is ultimately eating itself out of grief, and I wanted to make a film that took suffering seriously."
In another interview, he said, “I wanted to make a drama that curdled into a nightmare, in the same way that life can end up feeling like a nightmare when disaster strikes."
Producer Lars Knudsen told IndieWire, “If you remove all the horror from Hereditary, the film still works as a family drama. At its core, that’s what it’s about, and I feel that the horror movies that stand the test of time are the ones that have something to say about the human condition.” This is what makes Hereditary such a provocative, nightmarish film: No one is safe from this kind of tragedy. Until the last act, this is a realistic and personal story about an emotionally strained family trying to cope with a devastating loss- ultimately descending into chaos, which is mirrored by the third act. The style of storytelling and the structure of the film resembles that of a drama more so than other modern horror films. However, Aster made sure to skillfully implement the elements of horror that movie-goers have come to expect and love.
Aster described his sophomore feature, Midsommar, as “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film." Both horror films are stories about family trauma with plenty of gruesome kills that squeamish viewers will look away from. But Aster told Vox, “If people come in expecting Hereditary, they’re actually getting almost the opposite.” It seems as though Aster had been personally challenged to create an even more story-driven horror film that doesn’t rely on typical horror movie tropes like demonic possession or dollhouses. So, he wrote Midsommar to take place in broad daylight with beautiful scenery and a vibrant color palette.
Rather than shy away from labeling this film as “horror” as he did with Hereditary—Aster embraced the film as folk-horror. He didn’t try to conceal the fact that there would be lots of cult mischief and murder; this allowed him to focus more on exploring how trauma affects the mind and impacts relationships. He told Vox, “It’s very important that we come into the movie knowing that the Harga will be doing a lot of killing. Then the surprise is that they are otherwise as fair as they can be.” He twists the narrative to make the viewer question their own moral principles, especially with the conclusion of the film. Some say that Dani is happier with her cult family than she could have ever been with Christian whereas others feel that she is stuck in an inescapable cycle of tragedy.
“That’s definitely how I see the movie… As a big opera. A breakup opera.”
While there are many scenes in the film that are quite disturbing, Aster claims, “At the same time, this is a fairy tale, and they really are exactly what Dani needs. For better or worse, this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy […] And so, for better or worse, they are there to provide exactly what she is lacking, and exactly what she needs, in true fairy-tale fashion.” This cross between fairy-tale folklore and cult horror makes for a unique experience that leaves viewers optimistic about what is possible for the future of the horror genre.
The endings of both Hereditary and Midsommar can be seen as different paths to the same destination. Both protagonists go through an extremely traumatic event and both are haunted by both internal and external forces that drive them to a complete breakdown. While Hereditary explores how trauma can affect an entire family, Midsommar takes away that element of familiarity by placing Dani in a semi-fantastical realm where she is able to escape reality and have a family again. This is very similar to the ending of Hereditary where Paimon has killed every one of Peter’s family members and leaves him (or, what’s left of him) surrounded by a worshipping cult of murderers.
Both films are terrifying in their own ways, but the attentive storytelling and dramatic elements combined with unique kills are undeniably what make them quality horror films. A24 has announced another upcoming title from Aster called Disappointment Blvd. starring Joaquin Phoenix. DiscussingFilm describes it as a “surrealist horror film set in an alternate present.” Hopefully, viewers can expect to be terrified and fascinated by the masterful storytelling of Aster.