It’s difficult to name a director who has had as much of an impact on the modern horror genre than the American filmmaker Ari Aster. Heralding in a new era for the genre that has also seen the likes of Jennifer Kent, Jordan Peele, Rob Savage and Rober Eggers each contribute their original horror visions, Aster has helped to popularise a strain of terror that is inextricably focused on the fragility of the human mind.
Whilst Aster’s modern movies don’t reinvent the wheel, they do tap into an attention to detail that has long been omitted from the horror genre, releasing Hereditary in 2018 to wide critical and commercial acclaim. Executing the basics with extraordinary proficiency, Aster not only created one of the scariest movies of the 21st century but also put together a competent drama too thanks to standout performances from Toni Collette and Alex Wolff.
Aster’s second feature film, Midsommar, took to the folk horror sub-genre to the eliciting pain and torment of a breakup movie, in an ingenious genre-bender. Fitting this subtext within the realm of folk horror acted as the perfect conduit to tell such a story, with Aster stating: “I just wanted to write a breakup movie, and I saw a way of marrying the breakup movie that I was having at the time with the structure of a folk horror film,” whilst in discussion with YouTube channel Birth.Movies.Death.
Taking great inspiration from the history of cinema to create each and every one of his movies, it’s no secret that Aster is a great lover of art film, looking to the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman and Kenji Mizoguchi when in a creative rut.
Speaking to Criterion, however, Aster pointed to one unlikely director who he rarely discusses, the British filmmaking icon Mike Leigh. “Mike Leigh might be my favourite living filmmaker,” he told the beloved distribution service, calling his 1999 period piece Topsy-Turvy, “So funny and so filled with period detail and so clearly a film that doesn’t want to stop…every scene is so rich,” he added. Though, whilst he holds a fair amount of love for the unusual period piece starring Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville, there is one other film he holds more dearly.
Winning Mike Leigh the award for Best Director at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, Naked is often considered to be the British filmmaker’s very best work. Aster certainly agrees, gushing over the film as he states, “David Thewlis’s performance is my favourite male performance ever. There’s nothing like it. It’s a bleak film, but it’s so filled with life and passion and it’s so funny”.
Fueled by the barking energy of Johnny (David Thewlis), Naked reflects a bleak depiction of 1990s London, following the homeless character from his hasty departure from Manchester to the thrills of the capital city. Visiting his Mancunian friend in Dalston, Johnny arrives unannounced and proceeds to throw his weight around and impose his conspiracy theories about the state of the world and the degradation of society in Leigh’s near-apocalyptic drama.
Loving the work of the British filmmaker thanks to his careful dedication to character, Aster revisits his films to pull himself “a little bit out of genre and remember what it is that makes us care about any story in the first place—the people at the heart of it”.