“When people ask if I consider myself a horror director, I’ll be quick to respond with a very clear no, absolutely not. Because there are so few horror films that for me live up to what the genre can do.” - Ari Aster, writer and director, Hereditary and Midsommar.
I consider myself a horror connoisseur. Movies, books, poems, TV, haunted houses, you name it, and I’ve likely experienced it. Be it the classics of Poe, Lovecraft, Shelley, and Stoker, or the sickening devastation of Martyrs and Cannibal Holocaust, or the TV series such as Channel Zero, Hannibal, and AHS. You can even read my articles on modern horror here. I’m as jaded as they come, and it is nearly impossible to shock, disturb, or frighten me, especially through a work of fiction.
Then I saw Hereditary, Midsommar, and the Witch.
These are the films that elevate the genre to a level it rarely reaches: that of cinematic parity with other high end works. I’m all for a good jump scare, gross out scene, or classic slasher flick, but what I really want to be challenged in some fashion. Present me with complex ideas I have to think on, mythologies with depth, and scenes that instill a sense of foreboding before punching me in the gut. I want to dwell on your film days after it’s over and discover new things each time I watch. I want every scene to ask and answer more questions, and present no easy answers to those questions.
I went to see Midsommar with a friend whose horror credentials outstrip even my own, and at the end, both of us were in a state of shock at what we’d witnessed. For multiple days we discussed nuances, scene details, folklore, meanings, foreshadowing, and yes, disturbing scenes. I can’t stress enough how difficult it is to shock us, and yet Hereditary and Midsommar delivered, unloading soul crushing displays that resonated even within the most jaded. One trip onto the internet will show threads hundreds of replies long dissecting every nuance of these films. So what did these films do that made them so effective?
5. Vast mythology, but not at the expense of the film.
The depth of the folklore involved in these films is unparalleled. Nearly every scene has some hidden (or overt) reference to the lore of the film. Midsommar, in nearly every frame, had some piece of art, rune, or ritual, and most times was never explained. As a fan of norse mythology, the use of the Elder Futhark runes piqued my interest, so I translated a few when I got home and discovered some interesting tidbits I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say, these movies are complex, but don’t get bogged down in the muck for extended periods. The filmmakers show us enough and create mystery without ruining the film. I’m looking forward to a second viewing of Midsommar to check out many of the dozens of paintings and their symbolism.
4. Proper use of foreshadowing.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, you get foreshadowing EVERYWHERE. It is impossible to view these films once and catch all the nuggets strewn about each scene. Even on multiple viewings, I’ll still have someone point out something I didn’t catch. This also helps with twists in the story. If you have a twist, it needs to be properly foreshadowed, or the audience feels cheated. Even better, if you have them searching for clues after the film, you’ve elevated your craft.
After I left Midsommar, I mentioned that it appeared Ari Aster binge watched Kubrick films then sunk himself into ancient folklore. The comparisons are undeniable with the late, great Kubrick. Using symmetrical framing, geometric proportions, and lighting all gave me a very Kubrick vibe and reminded me of not only 2001 but the most obvious comparison: The Shining. Hearkening back to Kubrick’s impeccable Overlook Hotel, both Aster and Eggers take special care to craft each scene in a stunning and memorable fashion.
2. Set up the brutality.
If you’ve seen these films, you know the scenes I’m talking about. These scenes were not necessarily gorier or more brutal than others, but they hit harder because of the investment created before the incident. He sets us up with just right amount of character development to get us invested, then crushes our souls. Another thing that is expertly done is the sound. Allowing the actors anguish to shine as opposed to some background music sears the events and heartbreak into our brain.
1. Treat the folklore with care.
For many of these folklore based movies, one must take great care to present the beliefs with absolute seriousness. The Witch is especially well done in this regard, handling New England witchery with the depth and care necessary to make us believe that the characters believe in these things. Using the appropriate dialects and customs immerses us in the world and ensures that we can suspend our disbelief.
I could go on and on expounding on the greatness of these movies. As a long time horror fan, for many years the genre has failed to live up to its potential, but it is great to see a new generation pushing the envelope of what a horror film can be. Given that talent such as Aster and Eggers are early in their respective careers, I can only hope they have a lot more legendary horror films in store.
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