Ari Aster's never met a dysfunctional relationship he couldn't turn into a horror movie. His 2011 short film, The Strange Thing About The Johnsons, is a disturbing tale that turns sexual abuse on its head – it's the young son preying on his elderly father. The 16-minute-long Munchausen, released two years later, explores what happens when maternal love takes on a sinister hue and becomes possessiveness. The theme recurs in his breakout first feature, Hereditary (2018), which begins as a meditative reflection on the trauma inherited from parents but swerves into occult sacrifices and demonic possession territory quickly enough.
This fondness for genre hopping has also enabled Aster to tap into a comedic vein. The Turtle's Head (2014), a hardboiled noir featuring a sleazy, womanizing detective and his chauvinistic voiceovers, abruptly turns darkly comic when the investigator finds his private parts shrinking by the day.
Aster's latest film Midsommar, written in the aftermath of his own relationship ending, is part breakup drama, part dark fairytale in the style of the Grimms Brothers' stories. Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor play a still-together-but-unhappily-so American couple who travel to a mid-summer festival in Sweden. As their relationship starts to unravel at the seams, so does their sanity under the influence of strange new hallucinogens and their hosts' horrifying, near-cultish rituals. In what has become the director's trademark, it also features some of the most grotesque visuals of body horror you're likely to see onscreen this year. "I'm being cheeky when I say this, but isn't the role of the artist to take their sickness and put it into other people?" said Aster during a masterclass at the Mumbai Film Festival, when an audience member asked him how he sleeps at night.
Soon after, he sat down for a quick chat about why the dysfunction in families makes for great horror films, capturing the headspace of female rage and why he dislikes the term 'elevated horror':
There's this Tumblr post about you that goes: Ari Aster is like, "YES I will give you unhinged women in media but FIRST you have to look at the inside of a human head. No I will not apologize." What is your fascination with figuratively but also very literally showing us what the inside of a human head looks like?
(Laughs). I don't know. But there's definitely a fascination. And there are other movies I've written that go there as well. I haven't really questioned it very much and I was more or less unaware of how often I was doing it until recently. Maybe it's better for me to not ask these questions and keep doing it. Or maybe I should ask these questions and then I'll overthink it and then I'll stop. I'm interested in hearing other people's analysis. But that's certainly there. In Hereditary, you could say that that's a movie about people losing their heads, figuratively and literally. The process of writing usually begins with finding an image, wondering how to arrive at it and then, where to go from there.
A lot of your shorts, like The Strange Thing About The Johnsons and Munchhausen, and both your features, Hereditary and Midsommar are essentially all about toxic relationships. What is it about dysfunctional relationships that lends itself to the horror genre so well? Conversely, what is it about horror that makes it the best framework to tell these stories?
Midsommar is about codependent relationships and toxic relationships. Hereditary is about dysfunctional families dealing with grief. I am very excited by Expressionism and one way to find that is to take the internal and to make that external, to have your world reflect what's inside the characters, to have the story reflect that. With Midsommar and Hereditary, I was making a film about people who are going through extreme things and suffering very extreme emotions and so the film begs to be made just as extremely. That's what I try to do and I'm excited by that task. I get embarrassed when I think about how many films I plan to make that revolve around families in my mind. Family is just fodder for good drama, I think. There's nobody in the world that's closer to us than our own families and so it's not hard to connect to a story about families.
There's this parallel in Hereditary and Midsommar that I love – the lead women asking the men in their lives to apologise. They're fed up and grieving and close to breaking down and they just want one decent apology. You've captured female rage so well, what's the process of getting into that headspace like?
I don't know. Maybe I just have a strong female side because that's sort of how I operate as well. My philosophy about writing anybody, women or men, is that if I put myself into them, they'll feel real. I'm somebody who apologises too much and often, I just want the other person to acknowledge what they've done and how I'm feeling. I'm always very happy when women say that (the characters of) Annie or Dani spoke to them, but ultimately, it's as simple as me writing for and about myself.
It's also interesting how throughout the entire movie Dani is the one who has to stifle her grief and pain from Christian, the way women are often told they're being 'over-emotional' and should pipe down. But by the end it's him who's incapacitated and can't talk.
That's certainly part of the design. She has to apologise for herself the entire time but in the end she makes this cold decision without explaining herself and Christian is rendered speechless in the same way that she has been. I can't really touch upon that better than you just did.
There are so many bad horror films that I think are made pretty cynically. You know when something is personal and when something is made by a committee or because someone thinks they can make a fast buck
Hereditary and Midsommar feel like companion pieces – they both begin with the death of a family member but where Hereditary is about the complete annihilation of this family by a cult, Midsommar is about finding a family in one.
I see them as companions but they weren't designed to be companions. I've written about 10 screenplays. Those two were written one after the other, pretty close to each other. So it makes sense that they would bleed into each other because I was in a similar headspace. You could also say that the end of both films feature somebody being crowned, right? So there's a certain iconography that's being played with in both films.
A lot of it was accidental, a lot of it I realised after that fact and a lot of it was, I don't know if I can say a lot of it is deliberate, because when I was writing Midsommar, I wasn't thinking, 'This is my sequel to Hereditary.' or 'This will be my follow-up.' I didn't even know I was going to make them back to back. I wrote them years before I made either of them. When I finished Midsommar, after I wrote Hereditary, I did get excited because I realized there was a connection there, which was interesting and which I was looking forward to exploring. But I forgot about it until I made Midsommar and then I realized while we were editing it that: One, there were a lot of things that connected the two films, and two, that I was repeating myself in some ways.
Over the past few years, there's been the rise of what people call 'elevated horror' or 'smart horror' and you've also said you're excited when a horror film has 'ambitions'. At the same time, there are people who find the term snobbish because it implies the horror genre needs elevating. Where do you stand?
I don't like the term 'elevated horror'. I think it's useful because there are so many bad horror films that I think are made pretty cynically. You know when something is personal and when something is made by a committee or because someone thinks they can make a fast buck. So there are a lot of horror films that feel cheap. The exception to the schlocky horror movie is nothing new. We've had it for decades and decades and decades. Yes, there are a lot of bad horror films but then again, there's also a lot of bad action movies and then the exception to the bad action movie, which is brilliant. Nothing's better than a great action movie. So there is something snobbish about the term 'elevated horror'.
Ultimately, horror movies are art movies. Not all of them are, I don't think art is an elastic term, but I do get annoyed by the way genre films are separated from the so-called 'highbrow'. Like drama is a thing that's to be respected and revered. It's like, 'We're going to go to a drama tonight! We're going to pay our dues!' but a horror movie, unless someone makes the exception, it's almost considered trash. I find that to be very annoying but it comes from so many bad films saturating the market. But ultimately, a good horror film can employ all of the cinematic tools in a way that almost no other film can. There are three genres that are especially designed to be shared among an audience and those are comedy, horror and action. There's nothing like watching a really good horror film with a full audience.