Ari Aster and Alex Garland
by Dean Patrick
Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” was his last film. And it was a glorious one, filled with pure dread, paranoia, and betrayal. But that’s another entry. Since its 1999 release, and since Kubrick’s death, it took some time before macabre filmmaking and directing would produce works at his level.
Enter Ari Aster and Alex Garland. In just 8 short years these two directors have produced 5 of the very finest horror films in the genre’s catalog. Let’s take a peek.
ARI ASTER’S “HEREDITARY” AND “MIDSOMMAR”
When Aster’s “Hereditary” hit the big screen audiences were left completely overwhelmed by Toni Collette’s performance of extreme madness. She should have easily won the 2018 Oscar for Best Actress. Her performance was infinitely better than Olivia Colman’s. But whatever. “Hereditary” was such a massive success everyone wondered how Aster could follow such a vivid portrayal of not only madness, but evil. Rather than discuss that film here (as I covered it in a past blog, here), Aster’s followup, “Midsommar” left audiences perhaps even more disturbed.
Aster’s second outing, starring Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor, takes place in a nestled village in Sweden, where a group of college students are invited to participate in one of their friends’ commune’s 9-day festival. Upon their arrival to the village they begin their journey by taking tabs of acid. Things go all to hell from there.
For the remaining 90 minutes Aster’s “Midsommar” blasts the audience with ethereal music that’s so haunting it’s hard to shake at the closing credits; village dwellings that are filled with cartoonish paintings of freakish characters who foreshadow the awful rituals that take place during the festival; scenes of more drug-induced moments of character betrayal and assassination; and the film’s centerpiece of horror where two of the village’s older residents willingly jump from a cliff to land on a massive rock below that’s designed as a holy death entrance into the village’s belief of an endless lifecycle of insanity; that giving up life in such horror is all part of the greater good: giving back to this cult’s endless harmony of life itself.
It is a film of raw power where orgies, sacrifices, runic scripture, drug madness, and cold-blooded murder are all led by incest-bred prophets known as oracles.
“Holy shit” is an understatement that you’ll find yourself whispering out loud quite frequently during each of Aster’s films. Don’t miss them.
ALEX GARLAND’S “EX MACHINA,” “ANNILIHATION,” AND “MEN”
We’re blessed as horror lovers that two directors have filled in for Kubrick. Alex Garland has joined Aster with 3 unforgettable ordeals of torment.
“Ex Machina,” starring Oscar Isaac (who is electrifying here) and Domhnall Gleeson, is Garland’s debut, and it hits every cylinder from the moment Isaac’s Nathan greets his eager young software developer, Caleb (Gleeson) after Caleb has won a coding contest where the prize is a week’s stay at Nathan’s fabulous million acre estate. During the week, Caleb’s job is to observe Nathon’s creation of AI women who are so lifelike they actually are alive. Located in the middle of nowhere, this modern-day Frankenstein saga of high-tech hell showed audiences immediately Garland’s power to deliver perpetual dread.
But its Garland’s second film, “Annihilation” where he showcases an explosion of visceral talent. Starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac again, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Garland launches a full-blown onslaught of science fiction horror that includes the fusion of humans and plants, time warps and time friction, and a bear scene that is as shocking and disturbing as Toni Collette’s ceiling crawling moment before she jumps to the floor to murder her son in “Hereditary.”
Portman plays Lena, who is eventually brought to a place called The Shimmer, a place on a future earth where no mission has produced a survivor in years. Lena teams up with Jason Leigh’s crew and when it passes the threshold into the wooded area, Garland paints a world where science, horror, and the afterlife all collide into a blistering world of insanity. It’s a place where plot no longer matters, where plot is replaced by visual madness.
Finally, Garland’s latest, is “Men” staring Rory Kinnear and Jessie Buckley. This is as good as horror gets. Rather than take any space here, please see my blog, here.
What makes Aster and Garland so special, and so worthy of Kubrick comparison, is their invigorating attention to detail with every frame. It is their fierce examination of the human condition in severe distress. Their authenticity in showing the answers to the question, “what scares you, and why?” If what they do in the years to come is as terrifying as what they’ve already demonstrated, God help us. In a good way.