Spoilers for Midsommar and Hereditary.
Horror is one of the hardest genres to execute appropriately. While the profits look nice, the quality tends to fail. Last year and this year both have had two special films pop up from a new face in Hollywood. Ari Aster debuted a masterpiece that twists the oversaturated supernatural subgenre with Hereditary and as of a week ago has unleashed Midsommar, a dark twist on Sweden’s otherwise beautiful summer solstice festivals. Only two movies under his belt and I can safely say he is the current king of all things spooky in today’s climate of money-hungry ghosts and killers.
The magic of cinema is that it can evoke emotion from an audience by going beyond a piece of entertainment. Aster’s two releases have done this beautifully. Both movies share plenty of familiar, poignant themes like dysfunctional relationships and mental illness.
Mental health often gets portrayed in a cartoonish way that can heighten the stigmas rather than diminish them. The two films capture the complexity of depression and other illnesses.
Dani (Florence Pugh) in Midsommar loses her parents and sister who had been suffering from bipolar disorder. Her grieving and struggles remain throughout the entirety of the movie while playing into her character’s choices. It is why she becomes so vulnerable to the cult’s wishes of her joining them, which is even foreshadowed by Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) story about the death of his parents.
The protagonist of Hereditary, Annie (Toni Collette) goes through something similar as she loses both her mother and daughter in a short span of time. Annie’s pain, resentment, sorrow, regret, and the many other emotions that Collette display showcases how complicated feelings can become in troubling times. Annie’s vulnerability lets her ignore any signs of unusual events, which becomes her whole family’s downfall by the grandmother’s Pagan cult.
Plenty of horror influences get injected into Aster’s creations, but the main inspiration comes from real-world drama. Having problematic relationships or dealing with loss occurs in other movies; however, Aster takes it to a new level by the characters being more important than the threat. Usually, the psychotic killer is given more development than his potential victims. The focus on the personal lives of the protagonists in Hereditary and Midsommar make them a lot more believable, empathetic, and relatable.
Putting the spooky elements in the background or pushing it into the latter half of the movie sets up a slow burn that fleshes out characters. While it may be divisive since many who go into a theater for this genre want to get scared, but the audience Aster targets needs the patience to get to the turning point of the narrative.
His supernatural debut is an hour of an almost pure family drama, with ghosts and cult activity sprinkled throughout. The halfway mark slightly diverges for a more traditional spiritual horror story, while still maintaining what is happening between each family member. The drama beat me down with its depressing tone, then once things got dark, I felt defenseless by the grueling experience that leads up to the final act.
The latest project is almost entirely a drama between a couple and a group of friends. The cult activities are upfront, but nothing terrifying ever happens. The final moments are more forward about the sacrificial ritual being performed while keeping with the same tone and pacing like the rest of the film. Hereditary had a distinct shift, while this latest folk horror stayed on the road it had set in the beginning.
Blending imagination and reality makes for the most horrific experience. The director/writer does plenty of research to make sure both of these Pagan inspired narratives. Paimon, the demon that the cult worships in Hereditary, is not something made-up for the film. His origins predate Christianity and have popped up in a variety of religious texts. Meanwhile, Midsommar takes an array of influences from European summer solstice festivals and Pagan rituals, while taking some liberties to make the Hårga cult feel like a real group of people in Sweden.
Taking historical folklore takes research, which Aster does an excessive amount. The symbols, traditions, and runes found in his breakup horror flick come from Swedish history and mythology. Hårga is a location in Northern Sweden with a dark tale that goes behind it involving the devil, impersonating a fiddler, making people dance until they die. That is quite reminiscent of Dani and other women in the dance competition to become May Queen.
Traditions stay true, except for murder, like the use of flowers. The flower crowns seen are a highly regarded accessory along with the use of decoration.
Aster has an eye for art by the way his films are shot. They hold a variety of different shots to keep everything fresh. Midsommar has some wild shots from upside-down perspectives and wide shots to take in everything happening in an important scene. Both of his films utilize the camera to give meaning to what is happening between characters. In a scene during Hereditary between Annie and Peter (Alex Wolf) having an argument in the middle of the night, the viewpoint given shows the distance of the mother and son, not literally, but the separation of their relationship.
No room for filler because every choice from writing, shooting, and set design is done with a purpose. Little symbols that need a second or third viewing tell a part of the story in each nightmarish creation. Aster seems to enjoy throwing hidden gems to hint at an element of the narrative that only a small portion of an audience will identify.
Too many filmmakers churn out movie after movie that is another generic cash grab with no personality. Aster puts a style with his projects that distinguish them from any other release. His methodical pacing, distinct tone, and twists on real mythology make for traumatizing films to watch and make. Alex Wolf, who played the son in Hereditary and Jack Reynor’s role in Midsommar negatively effected them from Reynor’s discomfort during filming and Wolf’s mental and physical health diminished.
Two films are not enough to be a king of a genre, but two brilliantly crafted projects certainly give Aster the upper hand. If this continues, then I do see him being a master at cult classics. His vision causes diversity amongst viewers, but what he makes does not get forgotten. The name he is making for himself will make for a loyal fanbase looking forward to the next expertly designed experience that will emotionally scar anyone walking into the theater.
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Image via A24