Ari Aster films overturn horror genre, expands on existing tropes

Image by Charlotte French

Director Ari Aster’s recent horror films, “Hereditary” (2018) and “Midsommar” (2019), have become widely popular among horror fans and film buffs alike. “Hereditary” sticks with the model of a classic horror film while “Midsommar” breaks the mold entirely. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, yet they both contribute greatly to the growing genre of modern horror/thriller films, exploring cult and body horror.

“Hereditary” tells the story of a family that experiences strange and disturbing incidents after the death of their maternal grandmother. Despite fitting the nuclear family model, each member has their own idiosyncrasies: one character is known for their  certain tongue-clicking noise and another has a business making artistic miniatures, including replicas of rooms and scenes from the film. With séances, witchcraft and demons, “Hereditary” contains your classic horror elements with just enough of the unknown to keep you guessing as you watch.

On the other hand, “Midsommar” depicts a group of friends, some of which are conducting anthropological research, traveling to a Swedish village for its mid-summer festival. The inhabitants of this village have strange rituals and exhibit unsettling behaviors that soon endanger the characters who have no choice but to remain with the villagers, as the villagers are vague about any transportation options out of the village. The horror of “Midsommar” has no supernatural basis but instead relies on cult-related realism, gore and a slow-paced plot.

As a more standard horror film, using familiar tropes such as jump scares and vengeful spirits, the unexpected elements in “Hereditary” come as more of a shock. There are suspenseful moments as well as sudden twists that make your heart race, and Toni Collette’s terrific acting makes the film’s horrific nature all the more believable. Moreover, Aster makes excellent use of light and shadows, setting most of the film in darkness, increasing the sense of mystery and the audience’s immersion into the story. 

That said, “Hereditary” leaves several story elements unresolved in the end, and the viewer departs with many unanswered questions. This is a common trend in horror movies, but it causes “Hereditary” to lack a certain coherence that could have distinguished it from other dark horror films.

“Midsommar” is a chilling film camouflaged by blue skies and bright florals with a leading performance by Florence Pugh. Unlike “Hereditary,” most of the story unfolds in broad daylight, which forces the audience to fully absorb every disturbing detail. Despite its sprawling, isolated setting, “Midsommar” feels intensely claustrophobic. As a result, the actions that occur behind closed doors adopt an eerier quality. 

Despite its unique, cult-related story, the plot can move almost too slowly at times, taking an hour just to establish the setting. Additionally, many elements are explained visually rather than through dialogue, thus the audience must pick up on numerous visual cues in order to understand later parts of the story.

Aster has an exceptional eye for suspense and detail, and incorporates elements of his own life and childhood into his films. He has stated that “Hereditary” is related to events he experienced with his family while growing up. His directorial style integrates classic horror tropes along with creative elements of his own, bringing just as much shock with the way he chooses to edit scenes and play with lighting and sound. Each film has already garnered the attention worthy of a modern classic, receiving positive reviews from journals such as The New Yorker, and receiving ratings of over 80% from Rotten Tomatoes. 

I preferred “Midsommar” to “Hereditary” due to its unique visual style and shocking themes, and because I had never seen anything quite like it before. Regardless of their differences, both films are worth watching multiple times in order to notice details missed in the first viewing. 

“Midsommar” and “Hereditary” are available through Amazon Prime, and “Hereditary” is additionally available on the streaming service Kanopy, which is accessible through Watzek library. 

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