Mark your calendars, because Hereditary season is upon us. More like a vicious remake of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People than any studio-built jump-scare obstacle course, writer-director Ari Aster’s frightening feature debut is the feel-terrible movie of the summer: a shocker about a family slowly descending into emotional hell after the death of its spooky grandmother. Featuring intense performances from Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, and newcomer Milly Shapiro, it’s a nightmare audiences will be dissecting (and recovering from) for weeks to come.
While the precise mechanics of Hereditary might suggest the work of a director well-versed in ghosts, creepy kids, and other insidious things, this is actually the first of Aster’s films to deal so directly and deeply with overt genre elements. Up until now, Aster has been crafting his own type of horror, playing with our discomfort with family taboos, challenging our perspectives, and visualizing the unimaginable. (His houses are haunted by far more than just things that go cluck in the night.) For those who want to properly pre-game Hereditary, or keep the high going afterwards, Aster’s six shorts (plus a buried Funny Or Die sketch about dick farts) are must-sees.
“Nobody admits anything they’ve done!” is a shattering exclamation from the domestic terror in Hereditary, but it’s an echo from Aster’s first and longest short, “The Strange Thing About The Johnsons” (2011). As the beginning of Aster’s interest in destructive secrecy within family, “The Strange Thing About The Johnsons” throws viewers into a horrific reality unfolding within one seemingly happy home: For years, the grown-up son (Brandon Greenhouse) has been raping his father (Billy Mayo). Aster’s storytelling plays to the emotional honesty of this domestic situation, slowly confronting the secret that everyone, the mother (Angela Bullock) included, has buried.
Taking place in a color-saturated, suburban setting, Aster’s project has the air of a ’90s-era Todd Solondz film. But “The Strange Thing About The Johnsons” is mostly about Aster’s interest in emotional violence, whether it’s the mother’s traumatic close-up reaction shots to witnessing such horror—predating the shrieks of Toni Collette in Hereditary—or using such a disturbing logline to grotesquely invert the power dynamic of a wholesome son and father, but without being too graphic. With the short, which he made as an American Film Institute thesis project with collaborators he would continue to work with (like Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski), Aster introduced his trademark swooping camera and slow dolly shots that offer viewers their own point of view into the family’s horrific events. “The Johnsons” becomes a definitive Aster story about our monstrous potential, specifically toward those closest to us.
Discomfort is a state of mind that Aster thrives in; he seeks to put a viewer into that place right along with characters who are dealing with something beyond their understanding. That’s the case with his second short, “Beau” (2011), which builds a lean-and-mean portrait of anxious apartment living from a nasty pitch: How would you cope with knowing that someone has the keys to your home? Such is the nervous dilemma faced by the title character, played by Billy Mayo, the father from “The Strange Thing About The Johnsons.” “Beau” exhibits a strong command of the major instruments of filmmaking, from sound design (as with the violently screaming neighbors) to precise editing that leaves viewers as discombobulated as Beau. The short then ends on a final note that—like Hereditary, but no spoilers—hints at something more other-worldly and helpless.
It’s telling that while “Beau” might be the closest Aster’s shorts come to straight horror, it’s also his funniest. As much as darkness surrounds his characters, there’s a comedy even further out on the fringe; at one point Beau is confronted by a passerby (Aster himself) who just yells, “You’re fucked, pal!” before shuffling off. The short can actually be found on Funny Or Die, where it accompanies an Aster sketch not listed on his IMDB filmography that finds the filmmaker letting his goof flag fly as director and co-star: an infomercial on how to achieve the best dick farts.
Aster is rarely afraid to use music instructively. Hear, for example, the shrieking score that fills an empty room with dread in Hereditary. It’s a quality of his work that can be traced back to his third short, which breaks from the talkiness of his earlier work to offer an experiment in wordless storytelling. Set in a pretty, soft-lit world, “Munchausen” (2013) finds a smiling teenage boy (Liam Aiken) going off to college, much to the visible sadness of his mother (Bonnie Bedelia). There’s a violence to her love, as we learn when she tries to lightly poison her son to make him stay a few days longer. The short unfolds like a Pixar montage made by a king troll. Hereditary already made headlines when its freaky trailer accidentally played before Peter Rabbit, but “Munchausen” would be a better gag: It makes the viewer swoon over its lush production design and fluttering strings, until the wistful nostalgia gives way to a gruesome shot of the boy’s corpse in bed. Though playing out as a cruel descent, “Munchausen” isn’t a one-note joke. Aster’s eye for succinct transition and gorgeous camera movement shine here, recalling numerous match cuts in Hereditary.
A key factor to the emotional truth of Hereditary, and the grounded insanity of Aster’s shorts, is his emphasis as a screenwriter on character. Before his feature-length work with Collette, there was no greater showcase for his skill with monologue and constructing performance than his three most-recent shorts, which he calls his Portrait Series. Deemed “clinical tableau” on IMDB, these fourth-wall-breaking shorts anticipate how Hereditary is foremost a character study. Furthermore, the way that Aster shoots these almost stream-of-conscious projects hints at his strategy of telling us more about a talkative character with what they don’t say.
All three films in the Portrait Series take place in Los Angeles. (Bet good money that Aster one day makes a film that specifically uses that city as a horrorscape.) “Basically” (2014) stars Rachel Brosnahan as a wealthy aspiring actress opining about different life experiences and relationships in different parts of her family’s desolate, luxurious L.A. abode. It’s a wordy, abrasive, loosely connected series of confessions, compelling for the character’s overriding sense of sadness and mystery. She’s the star of this show, but in control of nothing happening around her.
Something sinister lurks within “Basically.” It’s there in the man who slowly crawls up to a window behind the actress and freaks her out, and in a scene where her monologue is interrupted by a rogue dick pic, captioned with an ominous message: “Soon...” The short may be Aster’s most abstract, but it also visualizes his interest in narratives about the insidious things unseen beneath the surface of an environment. As in Hereditary, which creates layers of disturbing imagery in the foreground and background of shots, it’s a matter of where you look.
Aster’s strangest short is “The Turtle’s Head” (2014), named for the randomly shrinking penis of a comically sleazy gumshoe played by Richard Riehle. Confronting viewers with a slimy detective story that becomes a body horror film, Aster spins another story of characters who find out that they’re part of a larger narrative too big and cruel for them to see. True to his sense of humor, Aster gets laughs from the detective’s grossness, giving him voice-over hairballs like “Women. They don’t know what they want till you slap their tits and explain it to their ass.” The voice-over, and the arrogance, abruptly ceases once he discovers his dick is shrinking—something that Aster shows us, imagining the unimaginable as surely as he does in Hereditary, specifically during a shot of a different head that audiences may desperately want to look away from. (Relentless but never cheap, Aster holds on that disturbing shot as a way to deny us a reprieve from the horror happening in the foreground.)
Aster’s non-flattering vision of Los Angeles hit its apex with his most recent short, “C’est La Vie” (2016), available to view here. This time, his mouthpiece is a homeless drug addict. Like Brosnahan in “Basically,” Bradley Fisher’s volcanic unreliable protagonist is placed in the foreground or background of specific shots, but always at the center of our attention. His environment is essentially apocalyptic, and his soap-boxing moves from sincerely angry to shattered. Aster’s most complex and mature short, it condemns and then mourns the decline of Western civilization, while showing Fisher’s Chester Crummings robbing people and killing them.
With “C’est La Vie,” the same filmmaker who previously made satires out of familial love now explicitly addresses the trauma underneath his work. “You know what Freud says about the nature of horror?” Chester earnestly asks us in the final scene, about to burst into tears. “He says that’s when the home becomes unhomelike. Unheimlich. And that’s what this whole place has become. This whole time, and fuckin’ country and everything else. It’s unheimlich.” It’s an all too-perfect summation of Aster’s vision for what can frighten audiences the most. A ghost is spooky, a corpse is disturbing. But having a loved one traumatize you, or try to destroy you, is the stuff of nightmares.