Ari Aster ‘s 2018 hit Hereditary has been considered an ‘elevated’ horror, along with the likes of Jenifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). These films are viewed as the ‘ultimate recalibration of contemporary horror’s cultural status’ (The Ringer 2018). They are considered only incidentally horror films, somehow exceeding any recognisable composition as ‘real horror’, and thereby surpassing the mass-market reputation that comes with this. Horror as a genre has, rightly or wrongly, been classed as lowbrow, often associated with the likes of torture porn (particularly if we consider franchises such as The Human Centipede (2009)). When Hereditary was released, it rekindled an interest in cult horror which had mainly died out. Horror series such as The Purge (2013) and Paranormal Activity (2007) had become the new norm and the genre was trailing further and further into cinematic disrepute.
This film, however, received extraordinary critical hype, and garnered lucrative box-office earnings, recouping its budget of $10 million, as well as earning itself the classification of ‘psychological horror’. Ari Aster describes the film as ‘a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare’ and notes that he intends to evoke the fears of the mind as opposed to the base reactions of the body. Rather than experiencing sharp bursts of bodily terror, we maintain an ongoing feeling of unease. We see elements of this in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (2011-2014), and Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017), but it is truly epitomised in another of Ari Aster’s films, Midsommar (2019).
Aster subverts the traditional expectations of a horror film from the offset; the film begins in a somewhat dark, seedy, interior, and moves into an airy space of daylight, as opposed to the other way around. Interestingly, the dimly lit opening setting ends up being far safer than the perpetual daylight we encounter in Sweden, which becomes the scene of the terror, reversing traditional progressions. Not only does Aster deliberately upturn our expectations of the atmosphere, he destabilises our expectations of the protagonists; at the end of the film, Florence Pugh’s character actually adopts this as her new lifestyle. In conventional horror, the main characters find themselves in a claustrophobic location (think: home invasion or abduction-based films), desperate to fight their way out. In Midsommar, the victims willingly enter the commune, often voluntarily participating in their cultural traditions, and show little attempt to escape. In this sense, Aster’s piece is almost an anti-horror – it takes the tropes of the genre and flips them on their heads, adding to the already upside down world in which the film is set.
A place where day is entirely indistinguishable from night; equally, the characters become unable to recognise their own morals when surrounded by a society that functions with differing ones. Aster’s films are gripping because of their focus on those taboos we are unwilling to acknowledge; in Midsommar, he alludes to the consumption of pubic hair and bodily fluids, as well as human sacrifice and geronticide. Similarly, his short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011) not only requires us to confront our disgust towards incest, but presents us with a child abusing a parent, a situation which is particularly unpublicised. Often, his main characters appear to die either off screen, or with little cinematic build up. Hereditary’s Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is decapitated in a car less than twenty minutes into the film, and the death of our protagonist Annie (Toni Colette) occurs off-screen; we only see the aftermath. Similarly, in Midsommar, Will Poulter (who was the face of the majority of the marketing) plays a character who disappears with little explanation, as do several other seemingly primary characters. Nowhere to be found are the spiders, ghosts, and blood-thirsty murderers which characterise classic horror films; instead, we are faced with uncertainty and moralistic displeasure.
Just when the horror genre was beginning to feel quite dry and repetitive, artists such as Ari Aster, Darren Aronofsky and William Brent Bell have created films which appear to be a fusion of classic horror, psychological thriller and avant garde art house cinematography, appealing to an entirely new market, for an entirely novel genre.