Square Peg and B-Reel Films

Watch This: How Ari Aster Made Me a Horror Fan – And How M. Night Shyamalan Almost Made Me Regret It

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Welcome back to Watch This, a series in which I, a self-proclaimed film dummy who wants to go from cine-denial to cinephile, talk about the movies I’m watching.

Readers of Watch This are aware that I, like many others, have a very short attention span. I’ve never been big into movies. But lately I’ve had an itch to try new things, and committing a couple hours of time to new-to-me films is at the top of my list.

In this third installment of the series, I focus on my latest obsession: Horror! But as a cinematic newbie, little did I know that movies of this genre are either major hits or misses. This fact was made quite clear to me when I watched these four very different films by two very different directors this past weekend.

Let’s dive into the best and the worst of my newfound horror hobby, featuring directors Ari Aster and the (in)famous M. Night Shyamalan. Think your family is nuts? Wait until you get a load of these stories over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Hereditary – Rated R

A24 / Palm Star Media / Finch Entertainment / Windy Hill Pictures

Written and directed by: Ari Aster
Produced by: Kevin Frakes, Lars Knudsen and Buddy Patrick
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne
Released: June 8, 2018

Synopsis: When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. The more they discover, the more they find themselves trying to outrun the sinister fate they seem to have inherited. 

Making his feature debut, writer-director Ari Aster unleashes a nightmare vision of a domestic breakdown that exhibits the craft and precision of a nascent auteur, transforming a familial tragedy into something ominous and deeply disquieting, and pushing the horror movie into chilling new terrain with its shattering portrait of heritage gone to hell.

This movie is a trip from start to finish. It’s fast-paced; the action starts almost immediately, so you won’t have to sit through a bunch of boring exposition. There are twists and turns that I never saw coming, and suspense lasts up until the very last moment of the film.

I recommend Ari Aster’s debut feature if you love psychological thrillers, the supernatural, creepy vibes and a little bit of gore. I’ll admit that I had to cover my eyes with my hands and peek through my fingers at least five times during my viewing. Expect to squeal!

The Village – Rated PG-13

Touchstone Pictures and Buena Vista Pictures

Written and directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Produced by: M. Night Shyamalan, Scott Rudin and Sam Mercer
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson
Released: July 30, 2004

Synopsis: A series of events tests the beliefs of a small isolated countryside village.

On the other hand, The Village was a total letdown for me. The old-timey vernacular the villagers use made me viscerally uncomfortable, especially considering we’re not sure what time period we’re in at first. I decided to finish the film, but considering the amount of times I rolled my eyes during the hour and forty-nine minutes it played, I think I only caught about seventeen actual glimpses of the screen, total.

I recommend this film as one to make fun of because ultimately, there’s nearly nothing scary about it. If you need a good laugh during the Thanksgiving holiday, give this one a try. You can even make a drinking game out of it – take a sip every time someone in your watch party audibly says something along the lines of, “Are you kidding me right now?”

Midsommar – Rated R

Square Peg and B-Reel Films

Written and directed by: Ari Aster
Produced by: Patrik Anderson and Lars Knudsen
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Will Poulter
Released: July 3, 2019

Synopsis: Dani and Christian are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. 

What begins as a carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the insular villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that render the pastoral paradise increasingly unnerving and viscerally disturbing. From the visionary mind of Ari Aster comes a dread-soaked cinematic fairytale where a world of darkness unfolds in broad daylight. 

This film is my favorite on the list. Hereditary focuses on a family (but mostly a middle-aged mother), and while I thought it was great, I preferred the young focus of Midsommar a bit more. The story is centered around the tortured Dani (Florence Pugh), and her boyfriend’s group of friends who don’t exactly love having her around.

With the relatively normal and true-to-life way Dani and the boys behave in the beginning of the film, I didn’t expect this movie to get as weird, horrifying, boundary-pushing and harrowing as it did. The eeriness increases in intensity every moment, building up to an extremely climactic ending that left me shocked, creeped out and oddly delighted.

Midsommar also has some really well-placed humor and laugh-out-loud moments that don’t ruin the thrill or the scares, owing mostly to Will Poulter’s incredible delivery as the very snarky Mark. Aster’s ability to write natural dialogue is especially impressive, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

The Happening – Rated R

20th Century Fox and UTV Motion Pictures

Written and directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Produced by: M. Night Shyamalan, Barry Mendel and Sam Mercer
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zoeey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley
Released: June 13, 2008

Synopsis: Mark Wahlberg stars as a man who takes his family on the run when a natural disaster threatens to end civilization. For years, the earth has been the victim of mankind’s “progress,” and the pollution has finally built to a point that causes a global backlash.

An invisible neurotoxin is released into the air making the people in Philadelphia go crazy and kill themselves. The Happening is a paranoid thrill ride through this large-scale, cataclysmic environmental crisis that turns into a struggle by mankind to overcome nature.

This one’s even better than The Village to LOL at. I don’t know if I could have handled this without Mark Wahlberg’s complete commitment to his role throughout the insanely nonsensical path this story takes.

This one has it all: Comically obvious foreshadowing, delusional decision-making, an unnecessary and played-out love story, disregard for glaring plotholes, vague social commentary, and a climax so ridiculous that it’s actually worth viewing just to share in the awe.

I will give this film credit for its shock value, a few genuinely surprising twists, terrifying gore and its eerily topical plot. Considering it was released 12 years ago, its storyline feels all the more creepy in how it often parallels the events of the last year.