As a late-eighties kid, there’s an experience that Ari Aster shares with the rest of us that were born within a few years that no other generation will possibly ever be able to relate to. Those who came before us, save for a few very keen cinephiles, came before the home video boom, and those who came after, again save for a few very keen cinephiles, came after physical media became the poor cousin of streaming. To transpose a quote from Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, fetish products are not unlike porn, and there was indeed a time when your average Blockbuster employee might have felt bad for taking our money if they weren’t one of us anyway.
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It’s a short period in history where the ownership of art was accessible to anyone other than the super-rich, before the act of renting a film was achievable in its entirety from the comfort of your own sofa. In those days, there was no sophisticated algorithm to tell us what we might like, so that was our own responsibility. Paying special attention to actors and directors was usually a surefire way to build a personal taste, but it relied on shops stocking more than just a single title from a filmmaker you’d just potentially fallen in love with.
For Ari Aster, the experience was a bit more general. “I just exhausted the horror section of every video store I could find”, he says of his origin story. While other directors might tell stories about how early trips to the cinema as part of a family unit sparked an obsession which led to them chasing their friends around with a Super 8 camera, Aster’s is a lot more solitary. He initially channelled his energy into writing screenplays alone. So it’s no wonder that the horror in his work tends to come from a fear of isolation.
Early Short Films
Ari Aster’s first experiences in holistic filmmaking came as a fellow of the AFI Conservatory, a not-for-profit film school run by the American Film Institute. Even from a standing start, it’s easy to see where his interests in the genre lie, and there are three in particular that take us into the experiential space between discomfort and trauma that comes from loneliness within what should be a safe space. In his second short film, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, the safe space is a family. They harbour a secret that threatens to rip them apart, and it introduces what is quickly becoming a familiar structure in Aster’s work – that something which is supposed to provide love and stability can also be something inherently evil.
In the same year he made two more, but with Beau, things became a little more abstract. The titular character can’t sleep, and that’s where the unease starts. A simple experience that most of us will have experienced at one point or another, but taken to its tensest extreme. It’s only six minutes long, but we go through a series of mundane, everyday events in the safe space of his home that are now eerie and stressful because of Beau’s heightened mental state and that makes it feel far longer of an experience than it actually is. It’s truly a masterpiece of crafting a feeling of dread from practically nothing at all.
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Munchausen is probably the one that stands out as the most experimental, in that it’s a silent film carried entirely by its absurdist imagery and a huge sense of visual scale. In many ways, it’s the polar opposite of Beau, it’s more overwhelming than it is subtle and it thrives in fantasy rather than familiarity. What they share, though, is the idea that something isn’t quite right within an image that should provide comfort. It begins as a story of great positivity, where a young character is about to experience freedom for the first time. The problem is that they come from the ideal household – it’s caring and nurturing, and headed by a mother with nothing but love. Those are the exact reasons why the freedom promised can’t exist.
With Aster’s first feature film doing the pre-release circuit amongst film critics, he was already well on his way to achieving cult status as a director who carried the ability to shock even the most hardened of filmgoers. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw described the experience as the first time he’d heard a room full of his peers yelp in unison while letting out a bisyllabic expletive.
Hereditary takes us back to The Strange Thing About the Johnsons in one way, it taps into our deepest fears associated with the family dynamic to present an entirely messed-up version of just how bad things can become. The head of the family, Annie (Toni Collette), is an artist. She’s a control freak who makes impressively detailed miniatures of the people in her life as a way of making sense of it all. It’s perhaps a response to the abusive relationship she had with her mother, a woman whose legacy lives on through the poisonous effect she’s had on the family. It’s no wonder that Annie is longing for a feeling that she’s finally the one influencing her own life after she dies.
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Midsommar ramps things up a bit with the bleakest of stories centred around loneliness within a crowd. Dani (Florence Pugh) has what only can be described as an awful life. Her sister is struggling with suicidal tendencies, her boyfriend has mentally moved on from their relationship without telling her, and the only support network she seems to have are his friends who would rather she wasn’t around. When she finds out about a trip to Sweden for a festival that takes place once every 90 years, and this time on her birthday, she’s invited along as a matter of convenience.
Where Midsommar draws its horror is from the same place as Munchausen, it bombards us with overwhelming imagery with the promise of freedom as a relief. It isn’t long before the freedom that should exist in such a story is replaced by suffocation and a feeling that nothing is quite right. This is a horror that works because of the empathy we feel for Dani, and the unease that comes from the idea that this isn’t how her life should be.
With Ari Aster’s newest feature, Beau is Afraid, hitting cinemas very soon, we’re in the privileged position of being around for the firsthand experience of a director who has all the makings of a future legend. Martin Scorsese already considers him to be a master of the craft, and who are we to argue?
For the generation who grew up with a VHS instead of a babysitter, and a guy behind a counter rather than a sophisticated algorithm, this is a filmmaker who’s carving out a career by taking inspiration from the things we had access to, and playing on the shared experiences that a lot of us will find inherently scary. Horror has a way of reflecting the changes in society around it, and what Ari Aster represents is that it’s now our time to relate to it in the way that past generations had The Exorcist if they’d grown up in organised religion, or Rosemary’s Baby for those ill at ease with urban developments.
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In making the idea of a safe space scary, it’s ironic in a sense that Ari Aster has emerged as a safe space for the genre of horror in a modern context. There aren’t many filmmakers in history that we can reliably look towards to create a feeling of profound dread every time, and long may it continue that this is one direction where we can.