The sudden and inexorable rise of the so-called “arthouse horror movie” in recent years has been an unexpected yet wholeheartedly welcome trend over the last decade or so. Although the results are often not for everybody, it has produced a string of unquestionable instant-classics each and every year: interesting, compelling and obsessively rewatchable films that remind us both the power of terror and the ability of film to manifest are deepest anxieties in the flesh, for all the world to see.
Hereditary is merely the most recent of this trend, and it is everything you would expect given that description. Meditative, divisive and impeccably shot, it is easily one of this year’s best films so far and will doubtless remain such through the end of the year. But to fully appreciate what it’s trying to do, it warrants looking back on the many films that came before it, whose aesthetic and narrative concerns are shared by Ari Aster’s astonishing debut feature.
5 . The Neon Demon (2016)
Let it never be said that Nicholas Winding Refn is anything but an interesting filmmaker. Although he has worked steadily in the film industry since the mid-nineties, he broke out to mainstream recognition with 2011’s Drive: an elevated, grindhouse-esque action-thriller in which a nameless getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) seeks to protect his neighbor and her son from a ruthless pair of Gangsters (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks). Generally seen as a disappointment, his net film, Only God Forgives (2013), has only just now started to be reappraised as more than just a confusing follow-up to its more copelling forebear.
The Neon Demon, however, brought audiences back around to his side, even if they were repulsed by what was shown to them. In this film, an aspiring model (the demure Elle Fanning), her transfixing beauty violently compel her fellow models to act out against her. It is a brilliant and revulsive meditation on the natures of beauty, obsession and consumption and easily one of the most fascinating narratives ever committed to film.
Oftentimes in this vein of horror, the monsters that one must confront aren’t so much physical as they are metaphorical. We see them, certainly, and watch them brutalize the film’s protagonists over the course of a few hours, but they are only ever stand-ins for the real, infinitely more mundane evil that plagues them. This, in turn, invites viewers to multiple screenings so that they can fully dissect, digest and understand the minutia of what it is that they’re really watching.
While The Babadook is hardly the first film to pull this trick off, it is, perhaps the one that did it most successfully. The monster of the title, the terrible Babadook, is like the sole inhabitant of a German Expressionist nightmare: a black-and-white, flat-bodied creature the consumes and corrupts anybody hapless enough to come across it. We watch it drive the film’s protagonist, a struggling single mother, practically mad over the course of its runtime, terrified by not just what it objectively is, but the more recognizable terror it acts as a harbinger for.
3 . Under the Skin (2014)
It’s a real shame that more people didn’t watch this film, because watching it is literally a one-of-a-kind experience. It is hands-down the most captivating stretch of celluloid I’ve ever seen: not quite a thriller, not quite a sci-fi movie, not quite an alien movie, yet somehow the perfect culmination of all three.
I first sought this movie out because I’d heard some interesting things about it and Scarlett Johansson is, as ever, a marvelous actress who doesn’t often get the kind of meaty rolls that she absolutely works best in. I watched the entire proceeding in a daze, then restarted the film immediate after finishing it. I did the same thing the next day, watching it a third time because I just couldn’t get its mesmeric characters, its bleak setting and its subtly fantastic visuals out of my head. It’s a sort of something that I rarely feel when watching a movie, but is revelatory whenever I actually find it.
2 . Antichrist (2009)
Even among other arthouse filmmakers, Lars von Trier is a touch nut to crack. Varying inaccessibly obtuse or captivatingly brilliant, you never know which extreme you’re bound to find when you watch his latest film. You could end up with the unutterably unwatchable Dogville (2003), or you could end up with the spellbinding Antichrist: a complex thriller masked as an even more complex relationship drama.
It’s the kind of movie where the main characters — a husband and wife duo coming to terms with the untimely death of their infant son — don’t have proper names, and instead are referred to as “He” and “She:” a conceit that can just as easily be dismissed as artless pretention or a masterstroke of narrative. It takes this simple premise, this grieving couple returning to their secluded family cabin to work through their grief together, and takes it to its most wonderfully illogical extreme: a marrow-chilling exercise in psychological terror and implicit power dynamics that make it just as fascinating as Under the Skin and just as compellingly deep as The Babadook.
1 . Mother! (2017)
This film is the very definition of a divisive work. It’s the kind of film that invites only the most extreme opinions on either end: you either love it or hate it with nobody coming in between the two. I’ve seen arthouse snobs dismiss it as irredeemable dreck and I’ve seen mainstream shlubs call it our as one of their all-time favorites. And as for me, I think that it is nothing more or less than the single greatest thing to be released in theaters last year.
When I left the theater, I drove the half hour back home in absolute silence. I sat there, radio off, replaying scene after scene, moment after moment, in my mind, trying to make the barest semblance of meaning out of what I had just seen. What it was actually trying to say I don’t know if I have any better idea even now, but it is the kind of film that I will keep replaying over and over again in my mind until I find out what exactly that is. For better or for worse, it is less a film as much as it is an experience.