For Ari Aster, horror starts in the gut: “I always have these existential questions buzzing around my stomach,” the 32-year-old filmmaker tells me via several thoughtful pauses. “I imagine it’s this way for a lot of people, but it takes work to cover the white noise of dread that pervades my life. I’m just a neurotic guy. I’m given to hypochondria, especially when I’m not busy. It also comes from seeing a lot of people in my family coping with disease. And bad things.”
Aster is not being vague out of coyness. He likes to talk, particularly in praise of other directors’ work—his Criterion-tinged taste runs heavy on psychologically unsparing dramas by Mike Leigh, Nicolas Roeg and Japan’s Kenji Mizoguchi.
But “bad things” is as far as he’ll go to describe the private loss behind the scripts for his 2018’s traumatizer Hereditary and his latest, Midsommar, a Wicker Man–inflected tale about a Swedish vacation gone seriously sideways. Both movies start in a place of harrowing grief, a black box out of which flies creepier stuff.
“Those films were ways for me to write through—and out of—a crisis,” Aster continues, carefully. “It’s a relief, when I’m writing, to torture imaginary characters with material that I’m usually brandishing against myself.”
We won’t pry. (Actually, we do, but it doesn’t work.) Regardless, Aster undoubtedly feels like part of a blood-red new wave, one that also includes Us’s Jordan Peele and The Babadook’s Jennifer Kent, of plugged-in horror artists who build on interior, personally rooted fears. Modestly, Aster is quick to deflect.
“It’s been happening forever,” he says. “Even if you go back to Psycho, that’s clearly someone working through his mother issues. Night of the Living Dead is a deeply political movie. Even The Tenant is Roman Polanski working through his experience as an outsider and xenophobia.”
Born in New York City and a product of Los Angeles’s AFI Conservatory (the same film school that David Lynch and Darren Aronofsky went to), Aster has his auteurs locked and loaded. But refreshingly, he’s come to represent the horror genre at its most liberated: His heroines aren’t babysitters or babes in the woods, but complex women in traps. Hereditary earned Toni Collette the best reviews of her career. Midsommar’s Florence Pugh looks primed to follow suit.
Photo: Courtesy of A24
“My philosophy about writing women is that I try to put as much of myself into them as possible,” Aster says. “If I do that, they’ll feel honest and real. Especially in Midsommar. There’s a lot of me in Dani.”
Dani, Pugh’s beaten-down grad student suddenly alone in the world, heads to Europe with a veil of tears surrounding her. Aster admits that the character’s fragility—and secret strength—came out of a breakup of his own.
“That’s a pretty arid landscape you’re navigating,” he explains. “You’re going through the ruins of a broken relationship. There’s usually no closure. So there was something liberating about pushing the story toward a clear and definite conclusion.”
Somehow, these raw elements—deep grief, female-centered realism and sickmaking violence (“It’s not to meet my horror-movie quota of gross images,” he explains, “it’s to make an impression on the audience”)—have translated into robust commercial success. Globally, Hereditary is the highest grossing film ever released by boutique label A24, the distributor behind Moonlight and Lady Bird.
“If I could tell myself five years ago about what’s happening right now, I would be pretty amazed,” says Aster. “I haven’t really processed it at all.”
He’ll take his time. Maybe open his laptop. Aster says he has ten screenplays good to go. These projects will take him away from horror, but he promises he’ll be back. Perhaps by then, Ari Aster will have a genre of his own. “Hopefully I’ll be good at other things too,” he says.
Midsommar is now playing. Read our five-star review.