Giving a Second Effort a Second Chance

Horror snobs love our up and coming young directors. Entering into a new age of brilliant horror movies means ushering in a new host of horror greats. We embrace and will always hold up Romero, Carpenter, and Craven. We have Guillermo Del Toro, (sometimes) James Wan, and Ti West to look forward to seeing what they will do next. Then we have the young auteurs, the new directors that are causing hype and stirring conversation. Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers, and Ari Aster. However they all suffer from one fatal flaw, they’ve made one hit horror film and have to live up to the hype.

Here I’m going to focus on Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. Unfortunately, Eggers’ second effort The Lighthouse had a limited release so I can’t include it in this discussion. The VVitch was a surprise sleeper hit with its historically accurate dialogue, costuming, and sets. Its subdued horror and open-ended narrative were praised by critics and audiences alike.

Jordan Peele’s first film, Get Out was acclaimed as a brilliant film with racial tension, a smart balance of humor and horror, and brilliant twists and turns. Peele was praised for his leap from comedy to horror and his next move was waited for eagerly.

Ari Aster’s Hereditary was a shocking revelation that divided audiences. Many people hated it for its blunt and graphic scenes. They disliked the long, dramatic dialogue scenes. The plot was confusing and thick with occult overtones. Horror diehards, however, were completely enamored. It was a dark and meandering tale that completely tore at the viewers’ hearts. It shocked without jump scares. There was a lot of dialogue, but it was snappy and well-written. The occult elements were well-researched, foreboding, and executed in a way that was at once shocking and new as well as completely predictable if you knew enough or took the time to look into the clues presented in the movie. In short, the people who loved it really loved it and awaited a sequel. It wasn’t as immediately well-loved as Get Out, nor did it have the widespread appeal, but horror aficionados latched on.

The hype built around these two films in horror scenes, and in the case of Get Out among general audiences. Fans clamored for a sophomore effort and one year later for Aster and two for Peele, we got what we wanted. And overall, we were disappointed. If you ask most horror fans about Aster’s Midsommar or Peele’s Us; they’ll say the movies are either “good” or “okay” immediately followed by, “but not as good as {their predecesor}”. As a horror fan, this is kind of irritating to me. Can’t movies stand on their own? I don’t have to say that Day of the Dead is not as good as Night of the Living Dead every time I bring it up, both films have their merits. Sometimes I feel like watching a movie about a loveable zombie and a girl who doesn’t know how to act when a hundred hands pop out of a wall and sometimes I want to watch a classic black and white zombie film with a surprising racial message.

I get that we as horror fans need to compare movies and rank movies. We live in a world where movies come in series that go on forever. We have reboots and reimaginings. Comparison is in our nature. However, when we have visionaries who are bringing us original ideas for once and all we can say is “It’s not as good as the first thing you did”, we’re being the unimaginative ones. We should be thanking Satan that we’re not getting Get Out 2: Get Out Again or Hereditary Legacy. At least these directors are taking chances and risks and making interesting films. They should be praised for this effort alone. Furthermore, if you separate these sophomore efforts from their predecessors and stop comparing them to their “big sisters” you start to see a quality movie under the surface.

US Image from IMDB

If nothing else, Us has a fantastic score. The remix of “I Got 5 on it” has been ubiquitously used for horror over the past year. If someone wanted to make something look scary, they would just play that song over a video. I would say that this is the work of composer Michael Abels and Jordan Peele has nothing to do with it, so it’s easy to dismiss. But Jordan Peele is solely responsible for his career as a film composer. Peele wanted to include as many people of color on and off camera in his films as possible. When looking for a composer for Get Out, he found that there were not many in the industry. He found Michael Abels and formed a bond with him. Get Out had a beautiful score, but Us elevates Abels’ talents. A new language was created for the tethered, unique instruments are used to represent the tethered. As a musical composition alone, this movie is a marvel.

The acting is also fantastic. Lupita Nyong’o is, of course, a standout and Elizabeth Moss is great as well. The child actors in the film are also wonderful and very believable with a wide range of emotions. Some of the shots in the film are works of art as well, Peele definitely has skills as a director that shine in this film. The actors are well-directed, giving believable, emotional performances. The humor may be a little misplaced at some times and not suited to everyone’s tastes, but no one fails as an actor which is the sign or a good director. The shots are creative and varied as well. Us does lose ground in its fantastical and often nonsensical story. Those who compare it to its predecessor are disappointed that it is not as grounded in reality as Get Out was. Yes, it is hard to believe in an underground society of doppelgangers who eat rabbits and mock our movements, but we love a movie where a child molester with a claw glove murders us in our dreams.

I’m going to be completely, brutally honest now. I wrote the beginning of this article in a few hours and felt great about it. Then I stopped abruptly, panicked, and set this aside for literally months. Why? Because I was terrified to write about Midsommar and Hereditary. I was afraid I’d rehash what has already been said. I was afraid I’d gush and horror fangirl all over the place. I’m going to try really hard not to do that. The bare-bones truth is I absolutely love both of these movies. Much like Peele’s films, I’m so glad that Aster didn’t go for a sequel or a rehash of the debut film that made him successful.

Hereditary Image from IMDB

Hereditary is a brutal roller coaster from beginning to end. I unknowingly bought my friend who is a mother of young children to see it and was terrified that I scarred her for life. Not many movies have the power to do that. It’s not for everyone. The summer that it came out, I had to laugh off so many people who told me how much they hated the movie. They would reluctantly agree that there were good performances then go on to say that Hereditary was bad: it was over the top violent, focused too much on the paranormal and occult, had long stretches of melodrama. To me, it wasn’t really melodrama, it was real and raw emotion. The kind of emotion that you really don’t see in a film. Since the dawn of cinema, tears have been beautiful. Raw emotions are reserved for heavy, theatrical dramas. Aster doesn’t shy away from emotion. He shows gut-wrenching grief and paralyzing sorrow. There’s quiet, seething rage and deep-seated angst. This is all played against a background of intricately researched occult lore. Where other horror movies may slap a vague occult resolution to the end of their story, Hereditary wove images and references to King Paimon throughout the movie. There was even an article in Fangoria that almost bordered on complaining that viewers familiar with the occult would be well aware of upcoming plot twists. To me, this is better than the “Oh it’s a demon” reveal that so many movies go with and skew and distort the laws and lore of demons (looking at you: Paranormal Activity). So the reception of Hereditary was mixed, but those who loved it really loved it.

Midsommar Image from IMDB

Then came Midsommar. The movie was widely panned amongst the horror crowd that for the most part embraced Hereditary. If not outwardly loathed, it was usually put beneath its predecessor. Criticisms included the humor falling flat, the movie being a rip off of The Wicker Man, and the fact that it just wasn’t scary. On the first point, I can agree for the most part. The humor is very much the typical horror movie humor of the lambs going to the slaughter. It’s the kind of thing that you will laugh at to make you accept these characters being unceremoniously chopped up. That humor wasn’t there in Hereditary, so each death hit hard. This compounded with the sunshine and flowers setting may lead people to conclude that the movie isn’t “scary.”

Traditionally, it’s not but it is brutal, it sticks with you and captures emotions that are rarely captured in art; which I’ll touch on later. As for being a rip off of The Wicker Man — I’ll say that it’s a rip off of The Wicker Man as much as Halloween is a rip off of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They both involve a silent serial killer in a mask picking off teenagers, so they must be the same- right? The Wicker Man is about a man looking to solve a mystery within a cult and going crazy while doing so. Midsommar is the story of a girl who is driven crazy by the trials of everyday life and who feels isolated even while in a relationship and among friends; she comes to find acceptance among a cult. Once again, Aster allows emotions to be seen on film that are not typically seen on film. Dani’s Anxiety and her emotional outbursts are beautifully captured. I love how raw and real they are. As someone with Anxiety, I related to her, because of how realistic these attacks are. This caused this movie to stick with me and matter to me. The cult gathering around Dani to have an Anxiety attack with her is such a beautiful and profound scene. I saw Dani’s desire to be a part of this cult as reasonable. The cult gives her the only true acceptance you see her have in the film. Beneath all the sunshine and flowers is the kind of horror that Aster does best: emotional turmoil.

I look forward to these directors’ next efforts. I hope that audiences can begin to see their works for their own merits.

I am a Co-host of the Horror Hoarders Podcast. I write movie reviews, horror fiction, and partake in the “dark arts”.