This decade gifted us a plethora of auteur filmmakers that brought something completely fresh to the horror genre, while still managing to derive influence from beloved classics of the past— Jennifer Kent, Issa Lopez, Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele— to name a few. But there’s one creator in particular who has excited myself and many others to next-level degrees with his assuredly eccentric, provocative, ballsy filmmaking style: Ari Aster.
After a round of shocking short films that blended elements of satirical, dark comedy with horrific scenarios and/or character portraits, we were spoiled with two back-to-back, feature-length classics: last year’s harrowing domestic tragedy Hereditary and the dark fairytale/folk horror hybrid Midsommar, both of which felt deeply personal and confronting in sometimes similar, yet vastly different ways— but both of which carry such a specific imprint of his that felt as if nobody other than Aster could have created them. More specifically, how he has expertly utilized horror genre conventions into his films— to create what will surely be two celebrated bodies of work for years to come— as the foundation for wholly new horror stories, like the best horror films always do.
“Genre conventions are the rhyme scheme of a storyteller’s ‘poem.’ They do not inhibit creativity; they inspire it. The challenge is to keep convention, but avoid cliché.” –author Robert McKee
There are certain markers to fulfill the promise of any horror subgenre, and Hereditary contains several for a possession film. The film’s ultimate revelation is, of course, that the Graham family’s subsequent tragedies were by the hands of Grandma Leigh, her cult, and demonic King Paimon himself, as he travels through each vulnerable vessel until he finally makes his way into the youthful, male body of Peter. The deaths, tears, séances, screaming matches, and unraveling of familial secrets were all leading up to a demonic possession subgenre movie— we just didn’t necessarily recognize this until the film’s third act, even though the groundwork was carefully (but subtly) laid out for us; but in ways that weren’t obvious, banal, and overtly cliché.
Over the course of her too-short life, we find out that Paimon was lurking inside of young Charlie all along, which, at first, checks the box of what we have seen in countless other demonic possession movies. Similar to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Jennifer’s Body, and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, The Exorcist, Paimon (initially) chooses to possess a young, innocent girl, so that the audience will be shocked at said young girl being forced to do despicable things under the demon’s control. And we do get snippets of that: Charlie’s demeanor is uncommonly aloof, with her dismissiveness of possibly getting pneumonia by sleeping out in the cold tree house, and her morbid fascination with cutting off the heads of things. However, where Aster avoids the tiresomeness of other possession movies is within his choice to a) make the demon’s ultimate goal to ditch the young girl’s body for a “healthy, male host” and b) not including the typical elements that flood a possession movie like vomiting/swearing/levitating until the very end, where the little that we do get is appreciated more because it feels earned.
Possession movies also often tend to incorporate the debate of whether or not the victim is suffering from mental illness by exploiting it entirely. While mental illness, we’re told, has plagued Annie’s side of the family for decades, Aster flips this trope on its head by making demon possession the literal issue of what’s going on here, instead of the metaphorical. In reality, likely no one in the Graham family lineage had suffered from an illness. This is an interesting cinematic choice to make, considering the once-retro way of thinking entailed that someone who was acting unusually had to be possessed by demons, instead of the acknowledgment (and lack of understanding, at the time) that a person may be suffering from an illness.
Like William Friedkin did with the aforementioned The Exorcist— a story about a man’s struggle with faith through the filter of the demonic possession subgenre— Aster weaves in an illuminating story about a “cursed” family’s destroying of itself under the guise of demonic possession. (“Cursed” is an adjective Aster has used when describing his own family, too.) As each member attempts to fight off his or her figurative “demons” of dealing with grief and trauma through toxic habits such as drinking, smoking, resenting, blaming, and/or fighting with each other, a literal demon is manipulating each of them like puppets— it’s just as tragic as it is disconcerting. No other genre could have embraced this bleakness of Hereditary as well as horror does.
With Midsommar, Aster indulges even deeper into subgenre conventions, as he shamelessly plays into all of the tropes one would expect from a folk horror film. With folk horror, you know you’re signing up for 1) a rural, idyllic setting, 2) an isolated cult/community with detachment from society and sinister intentions, and 3) ritualistic sacrifices— all of these boxes which Midsommar checks, in spades.
He inserts a group of unknowing protagonists who invade upon a pastoral territory they’re not familiar with, and they (either on-screen or off) get skinned, drowned, or hit over the head with a mallet, and thrown into the fire— all in service to the Harga’s required nine sacrificial offerings. As an audience, we expect (and relish) these moments of sacrificial gore and perpetual violence in folk horror, but Midsommar has more to offer us, with more poignancy than only that, which makes this contribution to the folk horror genre just as memorable as the classics that predated it.
For those who felt that Midsommar resembled folk horror masterpiece The Wicker Man an awfully lot, Aster is fully aware. In fact, it’s intentional: “The joy is not in subverting expectations, but delivering on expectations in a way that’s both inevitable and also emotionally surprising,” he told Indiewire. “The fun of the folk horror genre is that you know exactly where it’s going, and I didn’t want to fight that.”
However, where The Wicker Man roots its sacrificial ritual trope as a commentary on zealotry and the obtrusion of differing beliefs and theologies, Aster is hardly interested in these issues being the focal point of his film. While The Wicker Man is embedded with wider-scope social commentary, Midsommar is a more contained, emotional story about something most of us have experienced: a heart-rending purging of a toxic partnership between two people.
In fact, the folk horror framework is arguably the least interesting aspect of the film. It’s not what will happen that’s intriguing; it’s how cathartic it feels when it’s happening, as Aster has explained: “The hope is that, as you get to the final sequence, that the surprise is not in necessarily what happens, but how it feels to arrive there.”In a similar way to how he wrote his previous film, Aster’s own deeply personal lens of heartbreak bleeds into a fundamentally moving breakup story that is just built upon the back of folk horror tropes. He’s described his experience making Midsommar as “painful,” likely because it mirrored so much of his former relationship. But had he had not poured his own experience into it, it would have never been nearly as relatable and effective.
“(Aster) uses the horror genre to address substantive themes in a way that’s as enlightening as it is chilling. He helps to prove, as some of the greatest filmmakers before him did, that artfulness and horror are not mutually exclusive.”- film critic Mike McGranaghan
While Aster never skimps on gore and violence in his films to meet the genre quota, he is more concerned with how his lead characters live with their suffering, versus the ways in which they die. He doesn’t treat his characters as mere bodies; they’re people that we’ve spent time with, gotten to know, and/or recognize ourselves in. Watching a possessed Annie saw her own head off with piano wire in Hereditary wasn’t just shocking because of the visual experience; it felt devastating because we had been by her side for two-plus hours, uncovering secrets, and suffering along right beside her. While it wasn’t (as) disturbing to watch Christian’s stiff body and wide-eyed expression as he watches the flames engulf him in Midsommar, what was bothersome was witnessing Dani’s emotional reaction to it all after knowing how pained and heartbroken she was by his betrayal. The deaths that Aster includes in his films always feel impactful because, either we care about the victim him/herself, or we care about how the death will affect another character.
Something (I think) that connects many of us to horror is its elevation of its female characters, and Aster explores feminism and/or compassion for women within both of his genre films. In Hereditary, he uses both Paimon’s preference for a male body— as well as all three women of each generation of the family being used as sacrifice in service to him— as commentary for women’s oppressed agency within male-dominated constructs. Even more prevalently in Midsommar, Aster cultivates an overwhelming catharsis we feel from following Dani’s arc from pushover girlfriend to May Queen, as her life has repurposed itself from being attached to Christian to freeing herself of him entirely. In the moments that she watches the temple burn to the ground, Dani finally has assurance that her life has more meaning without Christian in it.
With so many other elements going on in his films, audiences and critics alike have debated to death whether or not he uses too many genre conventions in his work or if his work is even “horror” or “genre” enough. And, while that all depends on personal taste, it’s missing the point. There’s an issue with deducing his films as if that is all they are, because they’re so much more special than that. The beauty of Aster’s films lies within his capability to use the genre framework to give us compelling stories that feel personalized to him and what he wants to convey to us, and his work thus far has all been exceptionally well-crafted.
And for that— we appreciate you, Ari Aster.