When Hereditary premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it received the kind of response that first-time filmmakers usually only dream about. Ari Aster's debut feature was instantly likened to horror greats such as Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, The Wicker Man and The Babadook, while one critic dubbed it "this generation's The Exorcist". Given the movie's story and subject matter — a grief-stricken family grapple with the aftermath of several personal tragedies, uncovering sinister secrets about their ancestry and fate in the process — such comparisons might seem obvious. But as Hereditary tells its slow-burning tale in a masterfully unnerving fashion, it more than earns its place among such genre standouts.
Led by Australian actor Toni Collette in an award-worthy performance, this meticulously unsettling and suspenseful effort delves into the lives of the Grahams, starting with a printed death notice for their matriarch. The mood is expectedly grim, although artist Annie (Collette) doesn't seem that upset about her mother's passing, and nor does her psychiatrist husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) or pot-smoking teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff). It's a different story for 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who was closer to her eccentric, erratic grandmother than everyone else, and isn't coping quite as well as a result. While their varying reactions hint at the kind of domestic disharmony that most families weather, the Grahams are soon forced to face their demons.
Indeed, Aster describes Hereditary as "a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare" — and that's actually his favourite way to describe the film. "It becomes a nightmare in the way that life can feel like a nightmare when disaster strikes," he elaborates, touching upon the movie's uncannily effective ability to turn a familiar situation into something much darker and more disturbing. In fact, not only probing family struggles but pushing the boundaries has proven Aster's favourite terrain across short films Munchausen and The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. For his next feature, rather than making the jump from successful indie horror to the big end of town, he's sticking with his niche — this time following a couple on a trip that goes awry.
With Hereditary now screening in Australian cinemas, we chatted to Aster about making a perturbing yet relatable horror film, the need for films to wade into emotionally difficult territory and casting Toni Collette — among other topics.
ON GROUNDING HEREDITARY'S HORRORS IN REALITY
"I wanted to make a film that was a serious inquiry into questions about grief and trauma, that then spirals into something else.
There is a tragedy that occurs in the film, and I feel like that there is a trend, certainly among horror movies, to like throw these things in and then not really address the impact that such an event would have on the people at the centre — and I did want to make a film that really, really dealt with that.
And I feel like there is especially a trend among American family dramas where something horrible happens in the family, they struggle and they go through a tumultuous period, and there is some sort of breakdown in communication but then they ultimately come back together. Ultimately this tragedy has strengthened their bond and you know that they're going to be okay. But it's just that sometimes, that's not how it happens. Sometimes something horrible happens and it takes a person down. And sometimes that has a domino effect and people don't recover.
I wanted to make a film about that, but if you make that as a drama then it's a pretty punishing watch — and you're maybe going to get ten people in the audience. If you make it as a horror film, you're able to reach more people because suddenly something that might be considered a downer in one genre is a virtue in another.
So I wanted to make just a very sorrowful horror movie that was really trying to come to terms with hard things."
ON THE CATHARSIS OF HORROR FILMS
"It was certainly cathartic for me to write and direct it. I think there is a certain level of catharsis that is demanded of any genre film — and certainly horror. And it was a therapeutic process finding that catharsis.
We need hope. I think that's how people get through things — they project into the future and they work towards something better. We need movies about how things can repair themselves. But I know that there are people who are suffering and are going through something horrible, and they're not out of it, and sometimes those films are not very helpful to watch — films about people getting through things. I think sometimes it can be a relief to watch a movie that takes suffering seriously."
ON HEREDITARY'S SLOW-BURN APPROACH
"I wanted to make a film that really took its time, and really made sure to root you in the experience of these people. And I knew I needed to address the family drama stuff before I even thought about the horror elements, because I knew that I needed the horror elements to all grow out of what we had established in that first hour.
But then, at the same time, the film is about a family that has no agency, and they are being driven towards this inevitable end — so everything that's happening, it's like all of these snares are being set up for these things that need to be triggered at the end. It's just a matter of testing the audience's patience without actually giving them anything unnecessary.
The editing process was a pretty gruelling one, because we had a three hour film at first. We ended up cutting around 30 scenes out of the film, because the movie was asking too much of the audience's patience. That's what happens on every film — you end up cutting a lot. But I think we cut more than I was expecting to cut, and it was all family drama stuff — so that slow-burn was slower."
ON CASTING TONI COLLETTE
"She was one of the first people we went to. It was a huge day when she responded to the script, and we met up and really got along. And when it became clear that she was attaching herself — I mean, that's the difference between having a movie go ahead or not. So when she came on, that was the beginning of the forward momentum that resulted in the movie being made. I'm endlessly grateful for that.
But she's just a really reliable actress. I've been watching her since I was a kid — in Muriel's Wedding — and I've always loved her, I had never really seen her chew apart the scenery in the way this film challenges actors to. I mean, everything she does is in the script, but the way that she throws herself into it so completely and so without ego was really amazing to watch and really, it was necessary. The movie needed it, but it takes balls."
ON RECEIVING SUCH AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE TO HIS FIRST FEATURE
"It's been a really gratifying experience, and it's been wonderful to have it be so warmly received. Obviously that's just great. But I have some nerves about it coming out, only because it has been so well-received and it has been receiving some quite hyperbolic praise. I guess I don't know if you would describe me as a realist or a pessimist, but I guess I'm just waiting for the pendulum to swing the other way.
So I'm waiting for the backlash — but hopefully people just continue to enjoy it."