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A young man and his mother aboard a cruise ship in this image from A24.
“Beau Is Afraid” is a twisted take on Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey. (Image: A24)

Ari Aster isn’t a horror filmmaker — his fascination for applying subgenres to his work makes fans perceive him as such. Aster’s firm grasp on the conceptual groundwork of what makes a movie morbid is what allows him to step out of the genre’s trope-y limitations. To Aster, the monster under the bed is child’s play. His films posit that the unfamiliar has become all too familiar; horror as we know it is losing its skin-crawling touch. Jump scares are too obvious; looming, blade-wielding maniacs are a telltale sign to turn around, and anyone who doesn’t or who trips in an attempt is a bore.

We’re not desensitized to a gory death; I still diligently avoid any recollection of a “Final Destination” scene despite how deeply they've been seared into my mind. We’ve come to understand it as harmless fiction. Unlike the characters on screen, though, we have the real world to run away from. It’s that last arm’s length of safety, that final shred of security that Aster is after. His monsters are our families, our social circles, our partners, and even our own minds.

Very little is known about Aster’s upcoming project, “Eddington,” outside of it being categorized as a Western and confirmation of a few choice names: Joaquin Phoenix, Austin Butler, Emma Stone, Pedro Pascal, and William Belleau. I’m looking forward to seeing if this will be yet another comedy-horror and if so, how much it will lean into one or the other.

Aster’s filmography ranges from early short films to feature-length cinematic releases. Whether you’ve been a fan or want to get into his works, I’ve ranked them based on their debilitating destabilization of our security.

6. ‘Munchausen’ (2013)

A woman holds a superhero toy in this image from Invicta Films.
A mother’s love is a powerful thing. (Image: Invicta Films)

In this 16-minute silent short film, Aster instilled a chilling fear in me about the greed of love and the exploitation of trust a loved one might abuse to keep it. “Munchausen” tells the story of Boy (Liam Aiken) during his final days at home as he prepares to leave the nest and embark on his next chapter in life: university. As Mother (Bonnie Bedelia) watches him pack the last of his belongings, she imagines a promising future on campus: sports, debate club, even an endearing romantic interest. Simultaneously, she envisions her own future, gradually colder and bleaker the longer she goes without him and decides that she isn’t ready to see him off after all.

This is based on a real syndrome, one that none of us want to experience but unfortunately, some of us have. In that sense, this film provides a window for us to view the lives of families and individuals experiencing this syndrome without personally stepping inside.

5. ‘The Turtle’s Head’ (2014)

A man stands in a bedroom wearing a white T-shirt and underwear with a camera tripod next to him in this image from Independent.
These violent delights have violent ends. (Image: Independent)

This deathly hilarious short film is the perfect reset after you’ve binged Aster’s “Titans of Horror.” His early work as a writer and director included its fair share of the grim and macabre but always left ample room for his dark sense of humor. “The Turtle’s Head” came as a shock to me as it was one of the more recent works from Aster that I watched. It’s a complete pivot from all of his other works, yet it maintains much of Aster’s signature style. This film brought me to tears in a completely different way than his other films did, while very much maintaining its horror elements.

4. ‘Beau Is Afraid’ (2023)

A man makes a call after an accident in this image from A24.
The world is a dangerous place where anything and everything you’ve ever feared will always happen. (Image: A24)

Over a decade in the making and supported by the acclaimed success of both “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” Aster’s personal project, “Beau Is Afraid,” finally found its place in theaters. Based on the short film “Beau,” introduced by Aster back in 2011, “Beau Is Afraid” axed the conventional horrors of the slashers and supernaturals to make way for a not-so-new yet deeply unsettling degree of fear: anxiety. The psychologically complex nature of the material was Aster’s biggest setback in securing the green light; recent discourse on mental health likely played a role in its timely adaptation.

With “Beau Is Afraid,” the horror beats — jump scares, jarring sounds, and manic chases — all exist within Beau’s psyche, creating a plane of separation between the audience and the horror occurring on-screen. Because of this structure, Aster maximizes what I consider to be his best synthesis of genres, comedy-horror, to deliver the best iteration of it. Aster’s artful dramatization of outlandish and anxiety-inducing scenes makes every moment of Beau’s ongoing nightmare a whirlpool of laughs and horror. “Beau Is Afraid” is a true reflection of Aster’s vision and a must-watch for anyone interested in his writing and direction.

“Beau Is Afraid” is available to stream on Paramount Plus.

3. ‘Midsommar’ (2019)

A young woman wears a flower crown in this image from A24.
“Midsommar” showcases the ostracizing effects a cult hivemind can have on the vulnerable. (Image: A24)

My most watched film on this list, “Midsommar,” inspired a renewed excitement in me for the genre I’d just about burned out on. I’ll never be able to shake the foreboding chill that slowly crept up my back during the opening scene; every element of camera work, sound design, and color let me know that I was mentally headed to a place I might never return from. I felt hopeless and afraid watching the scene unfold, and not in the way you laugh at and shake off after.

With “Midsommar,” Aster steps further from the script. He abandons the supernatural forces that consume the Grahams in “Hereditary” and instead offers a more tactile evil: a sociopathic cult that takes advantage of Dani (Florence Pugh) and exacerbates her dissociated state after she’s left irrevocably alone. Throughout the film, we watch as, one by one, members of Dani’s group are murdered and mutilated, skinned, and discarded. Still, we never lose sight of Dani and her endless struggle to find healing, and we succumb to the same hopelessness she must’ve felt when she started choking on carbon monoxide.

“Midsommar” is available to stream on Max.

2. ‘The Strange Thing About the Johnsons’ (2011)

A family takes a photo together in this image from AFI.
When does protecting our children ultimately harm them? (Image: AFI)

Gut-wrenching and wickedly depraved, “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” is easily the most difficult watch on this list. Its only mercy: a 29-minute running time. This short film was presented by Aster as his thesis film at the AFI Conservatory and secured him a premiere screening at the Slamdance Film Festival before leaking online. Unlike “Beau Is Afraid,” I’m more than happy this one hasn’t been made into a feature-length film.

The heaviest take-away from the film is the acknowledgment that somewhere, somehow, this must have happened, and if not, it someday could. The idea that anyone could ever be subjected to something so evil and cruel by someone they love and trust is sickening. The opening scene presents a dialogue between a father and his son about the uncomfortable nature of taboo topics, specifically, the harm in leaving them unspoken and unaddressed. Looking back, I’ve come to interpret this dialogue as the thesis of the film, as justification for making something so harmful: to create a space to discuss the undiscussed.

1. ‘Hereditary’ (2018)

Peter is crowned in this image from A24.
Family can really drive us mad — quite literally in the Grahams’ case. (Image: A24)

Just one year after Jordan Peele hard-launched the horror-conceptualism revival with “Get Out,” Aster stepped into the spotlight with his own violently graphic yet brilliantly subliminal debut, “Hereditary.” The earliest mainstream installment in Aster’s filmography, “Hereditary” stands truest to the traditional structure of a horror film — jump scares, death, and chilling sound design. It was easy at first to give credit to the tropes, label it horror, and call it a day. It wasn’t until the film’s artistic and lucrative success lured everyone back for subsequent viewings that fans began to understand the depth of the themes and overall narrative.

Toni Colette’s performance as Annie Graham sent chills crawling across our collective subconscious time and time again. It was the cutting personal pangs we all felt watching her be consumed by madness and fury, in turn releasing that unchecked fury onto her son, Peter Graham (Alex Wolff) — a result of unresolved generational turmoil. With “Hereditary,” Aster set out to do more than just secure a spot at next year’s Hollywood Horror Nights.

“Hereditary” is available to stream on Max.

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