Before directing his horror debut feature, the AFI grad made noise with his provocative short films.
"It's Long Day's Journey into Night meets Poltergeist," I surmised after completing my first viewing of Hereditary, the deeply unsettling debut feature from filmmaker Ari Aster that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. After a second viewing, that evaluation only strengthened, the film possessing traits equally indebted to the unspoken pains found in the work of family-infatuated dramatists like Eugene O'Neill and the dread-induced fixations of Tobe Hooper. A great performance by lead actress Toni Collette as Annie, a grieving mother who, throughout the duration of the film, will encounter even more horrific reasons to grieve, serves as the merger of those two influences.
From the moment the film begins, opening with dry on-screen text of a newspaper clipping announcing funeral services for the Graham family's dearly departed grandmother, something feels incredibly off-kilter; we're confronted with death before Aster can even provide the film's first image. Immediately thereafter, we're quite literally thrust into a dollhouse resembling the Graham's own home to an exacting degree, and it's clear that Aster's playful appreciation for spatial dynamics—the intricacies of the house, placed solemnly alone in the desolate Utah woods, comes complete with winding driveway and treehouse—will be as integral to this familial drama's roadmap as are its nuclear family.
Our own Emily Buder spoke with the writer/director last week for the film's theatrical opening, and, now that the film has provided distributor A24 with the company's most successful opening weekend of all time, plot deconstructions, scene analyses, makeshift character backstories, and a slew of impassioned questions regarding the film's conclusion have hit the internet like obtrusive waves sent to barrel through the initial impact of a first viewing. If you have yet to see the film, go in as cold as possible (and then read the interview). The film has its own twisted logic and, if you look hard enough, its own despairing sense of humor.
In case you need a little prep for that experience, you can check out a few of Aster's short films (some made as a student while attending the AFI Conservatory—for his MA in Directing—with AFI Cinematography Fellow Pawel Pogorzelski) compiled below. Narrative and visual similarities to Hereditary are readily apparent, if not in context than in tone. Family issues continue to reign supreme, and in the case of The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, that's a none-too-subtle understatement (the director's appreciation for fireplaces as a beckoning toward grim circumstances was birthed here too). And it goes without saying that Turtle Head, following a detective who's experiencing some peculiar troubles below the belt, acts out a very different kind of internal fear. More of Aster's work can be found on his personal website, linked below.
The Strange Thing About the Johnsons
Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/70163273
The Turtle's Head
Have you seen Hereditary yet? What did you think? Keep it spoiler-free, but let us know down in the comments below.