Film Director Ari Aster’s Fresh Take on the Horror Genre

October 17, 2019 | By Norman Zeng, Illustrations by Danny Tran

As a film genre, horror allows the audience to experience the collective feelings of suspense, shock, and surprise. Horror films provide an outlet for the public to unleash societal fears and anxieties that may be trapped in the collective consciousness. Up-and-coming directors often take advantage of this aspect of horror, and experiment with its conventions. 

Ari Aster-main1.png

Illustrations by Danny Tran

One such person is Ari Aster, the director of Hereditary and Midsommar, whose work has helped shape the modern horror genre. Filmmaking has come a long way from classic horror movies such as The Exorcist and The Shining — both bringing inspiration from past horror elements and storytelling, and yet digging deeper into more universal feelings of the human condition. 

In both Hereditary and Midsommar, there is a theme of grief and sorrow.  At the forefront of these films, Aster takes advantage of the horror of real tragedy. He exhibits mastery in using symbols and psychological horror to tell a story and create real, genuine emotions. Aster is an expert at both building and releasing suspense in unpredictable yet deeply satisfying ways. In both films, the audience is introduced to a female protagonist and follows their journey through trauma and grief — often a painful experience that produces the potential for intense horror.

Ari Aster-sub2.png

Illustrations by Danny Tran

Aster’s feature directorial debut Hereditary tells the story of Annie Graham (Toni Collette), a miniature artist and mother of two who must deal with the trauma of losing her mother. While trying to address her grief, Annie attempts to communicate with the dead and unleashes secrets hidden within her family. As a method of foreshadowing, Aster presents the dollhouses Annie creates as a representation of the events and characters of the film. Aster blurs the lines between reality and fiction, with many scenes in the house filmed in the way one looks into a dollhouse. The film brings into question whether the events Annie experiences are real or if they are imagined as Annie starts to lose touch with reality. 

Despite its unique symbolism, the writing of Hereditary is its biggest flaw. Though many moments are well-crafted, others feel unnecessary or out of place. Despite these shortcomings, the build-up and tension of the film were implemented with amazing attention to detail. Everything from the sound design to the development of the atmosphere was set-up to deliver a horrific experience to the audience. 

Ari Aster-sub3.png

Illustrations by Danny Tran

Aster carries some of the same tropes and themes of family loss, grief, and cults into his latest film, Midsommar. This film focuses on the relationship between Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) and Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor). After Dani’s sister kills her parents and commits suicide during a bipolar episode, Dani and Christian are invited by Christian’s friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to attend a Swedish midsummer celebration hosted by Pelle’s ancestral commune. Despite the paradise vacation, the community slowly reveals their harrowing true agenda.

Similar to his use of the dollhouse as a symbol in Hereditary, Aster uses illustrations scattered throughout the movie — from detailed quilts to paintings on the walls in the communal houses — to foreshadow the future,  as the community is no stranger to how the rituals play out.

Aster’s focus on Dani and Christian’s relationship is the backbone of the movie and drives the story forward. Dani attempts to communicate with Christian as they both attempt to find a reason out of their relationship. Midsommar shows us the falling out between them, while the chaos of the cultist ritual unfolds. The horror elements unnerve the audience while the tension drives them wild with anticipation, setting them up for an unnerving yet satisfying climax. 

Ari Aster’s direction has moved this generation, and will only continue to do so. His work breathes life back into the horror genre, and we can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.