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Echoes of Fear

The concept of family is both hauntingly recognizable and alienating in Nicolas Roeg's 1973 classic Don't Look Now and Ari Aster's 2018 film Hereditary. Both films dwell on familial relations and domesticity as the root of horror, illuminating the unsettling aspects of human nature.


In Don't Look Now, the Baxter family is tormented by the loss of their daughter, Christine. Roeg presents the family dynamic through grief-stricken lens, as the Baxters attempt to rebuild their life in Venice. John Baxter, played by Donald Sutherland, unable to accept his daughter's death seeks solace in supernatural signs. His desperation mirrors the bleak, disorientating streets of Venice, an elegant stylistic choice by Roeg that submerges the audience into the emotional landscape of the characters.


On the other hand, Hereditary builds its horror on the Graham family's generational curse. Unlike the external force that inflicts grief on the Baxters, the Grahams are tormented by an inherited doom. Aster exhibits an uncanny knack for showing the insidious nature of this familial horror. The miniatures created by Annie, a masterful Toni Colette, not only serve as a symbol of control and surveillance but also mirror the claustrophobic and inescapable family dynamic, a motif that reflects Aster's knack for creating atmospheric horror.


While both movies delve into the supernatural, they remain grounded in harsh realities. In Don't Look Now, the Baxter's grief and their crumbling relationship underlie the entire narrative. Similarly, Hereditary explores mental illness, trauma, and dysfunctional family dynamics against a backdrop of supernatural horror.




Mirrors of the Mind

Roeg's symbolism in Don't Look Now is deftly executed, with water as a recurring motif that mirrors the Baxter family's constant state of emotional flux. The water-drenched city of Venice itself becomes a symbol of their subconscious fears. The omnipresent canals reflect distorted images, much like the scene where John catches a glimpse of a red-coated figure in the labyrinthine Venetian alleyways, a visual cue to his disturbed mind and his underlying fear of losing his remaining family.


Aster's Hereditary, on the other hand, is rife with uncanny symbols such as the miniatures and the treehouse. The meticulously constructed miniatures reflect Annie's futile attempt to control her life, while the treehouse symbolizes isolation and eventual doom. These visual cues become representations of the family's ongoing mental and emotional turmoil, serving as a constant reminder of their inescapable predicament.




A Symphony of Scares

Both films utilize sound to maximize their horror effect. In Don't Look Now, the audio design often mirrors the chaotic and disorienting state of John's mind. The beautifully haunting score, coupled with the eerie Venetian background noise, underscore the uncanny tension and lurking menace.


Aster's approach to sound in Hereditary is somewhat different. He uses silence to accentuate the film's chilling atmosphere, as in the disturbing scene of a character's unexpected death, where the absence of sound amplifies the shock and leaves the audience in a state of silent horror that echoes the family's disbelief. These moments of silence are often interrupted only by startling sound effects or the disturbing cluck from Charlie, heightening the sense of dread.




The Palette of Horror

In Don't Look Now, Roeg masterfully uses color to signify impending doom and to stir emotions. The recurring red, for instance, associated with Christine's raincoat, is not merely a color — it becomes a symbol of death, danger, and the supernatural. It reappears throughout the film, taunting and terrifying both the characters and the audience, casting an ominous red shadow over the Baxters' lives.


Ari Aster's Hereditary, while more subdued in its color palette, also employs color to an unsettling effect. The neutral, almost drab colors inside the Graham household create a stark contrast against the horrifying events unfolding within, underscoring the sense of normality being eroded by creeping terror. The use of darkness and shadows, combined with the harsh, unsettling light of the climactic scenes, further contributes to the film's overall dread-filled atmosphere.




Defying Expectations

Roeg and Aster share a fondness for slow-burning narratives. They allow the horror to creep up on the audience, gradually building tension through pacing and careful crafting of tone. However, Roeg employs non-linear storytelling, while Aster's narrative is more straightforward, though not without its plot twists. Roeg and Aster both skillfully play with the audiences' expectations through narrative twists. In Don't Look Now the climax's shocking revelation, where the red-coated figure is not the anticipated apparition of Christine, effectively upends viewers' anticipations.


In Hereditary, the film's mid-point delivers a narrative jolt leaving audiences unsettled and bewildered. The ritual scene further defies conventional expectations, offering a uniquely disturbing resolution to the family's inherited curse that leaves the audience stunned.



 

To compare Don't Look Now and Hereditary is to dissect the anatomy of fear and dread within the family. Despite the differences in their stylistic choices and storytelling techniques, both Roeg and Aster masterfully use the family as a vessel for horror, proving that sometimes, the most terrifying experiences can be found not in the supernatural or the unknown, but within the confines of home and hearth. The two films speak volumes about the human condition, the nature of fear, and the price of love and loss within a family.


Both films remain iconic in the genre of horror. Their success lies not only in their technical excellence but also in their ability to evoke fear and dread through the exploration of the family dynamic. They serve as chilling reminders that horror can be deeply personal, rooted in familiar relationships and everyday realities, making them not just works of horror but also profound social commentaries.


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