There’s no other way to say it: Ari Aster’s directorial debut is terrifying. From the low-key, ominous screech of violins on the soundtrack to a strange young girl who cuts the heads off birds, Hereditary is bold with the use familiar scare tactics. Even when the film teeters close to silliness, it yanks the audience back into the terror with something close to mystical ability. Pitched just short of constant, haranguing hysteria, it left much of the audience in a state close to nervous exhaustion by the conclusion.
The setting is a large, unnervingly symmetrical log cabin and its adjoining studio workshop, where Annie (Toni Collette), a miniatures artist who painstakingly creates dollhouses, works and lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne). Their two children are worlds apart from one another: a weed-smoking, Instagram-scrolling teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and an oddly-featured, squat blond girl, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who has a strange, taciturn disposition. After the death of their elderly grandmother, tiny, bizarre incidences begin to take place. The forbidding old matriarch apparently dabbled in the occult, and has engineered something sinister from beyond the veil. Words are scrawled on the wall; apparitions materialize; accidents happen. These events build from the mildly disturbing to the breathtakingly brutal, and the first act of the film dissolves from a family bereavement to a traumatic tour-de-force. As the film transitions from slow-burn family drama into supernatural thriller, elaborate sequences show us the art of Victorian-style seances and spiritualism.
This character-driven approach to the family dynamic makes for an unusually high-stakes horror movie, particularly when the performances are so great. Toni Collette is a mass of mania and pain, her face sometimes contorting into an unrecognizable mask of rage; Alex Wolff transitions from an ordinary teen to a perpetually nervous wreck of a human; Milly Shapiro stares vacantly, with the unsettling tic of clicking her tongue. Recrimination, skepticism, and resentment color their lives together, and the empty spaces of the family home grow increasingly isolated and malignant. The glow of a space heater is spectral and hellish; the curve of a smile is forbidding.
And for as much as the film wallows in the depths of grief and trauma, it is also unabashed about being a genre exercise. By the time you’ve reached the conclusion, you’re not exactly contemplating the painful nature of family life so much as trying to unclench your rigid body from the seat. If Hereditary plays with multi-layered ideas, mostly it eschews the allegorical for the chills and spills of the ghost story. It hardly matters: as far as pure, unadulterated horror movies go, it may be one of the most successful ones I’ve ever seen.
After the screening of Ari Aster’s debut horror film at this month’s Sundance London, we had the chance to sit down with the director about his movie.
NOTEBOOK: Your film work so far has been very concerned with bereavement and grief—not just Hereditary, but also the news about your forthcoming projects. Can you tell me what it is that keeps drawing you to this subject?
ARI ASTER: It’s rare that I see films—especially genre films—that treat the subject of grief and trauma with adequate gravity. But Kenneth Lornegan has done it with Margaret and Manchester by the Sea. I just know that when I first endeavored to write a horror movie about grief and trauma, I wanted to make sure that before I attended to any of the horror elements, that I was making something that felt honest and true to me.
NOTEBOOK: When I left the screening, everyone looked shell-shocked Stylistically, it’s quite a slow-burn film, but the intensity is relentless. What do you think accounts for that effect?
ASTER: I wanted to make a film that was highly aestheticized, with this dollhouse aesthetic. It is slow burn, and there’s a twenty minute scene that was originally about an hour long. The original cut was three hours. But there’s a part of the film where the audience is basically marooned with this family, in their grief. And the horror and anything genre-related is kept at bay—though it’s still very oppressive, with a doom-laden atmosphere. And the original cut would have been much more punishing in that way, but I’m hoping that I made something that allows audience to become invested in the people and what they’re going through, and what they’re suffering. So when the pay-off comes at the end, it comes as a betrayal.
NOTEBOOK: I’m interested in the casting of the little girl who plays Charlie, particularly. Everyone is great, but she’s terrifying. For you, what was it like to have to cast a child actor with it in mind that she was an incarnation of evil?
ASTER: Well, you know—first of all, with that character, it’s a tightrope. Because you have that, but you also want her to be sympathetic and the audience to be invested in some way. I know that we were all—especially me—very worried about being able to find a child actor who could do what we needed with that character. When Milly Shapiro came in and auditioned, it was a big weight off my shoulders. She’s nothing like that character—she’s so precocious, so happy and sweet. At the end of every take, she’d jump up with a big smile and ask me excitedly, “Was I creepy?”
Very luckily, she loves horror films, and this is not taking a toll on her. She knew what we needed to do with that character in order for it to hit the audience the hardest. I don’t know if there’s anyone else on the planet who could have done quite what she did here. Forgive the hyperbole.
NOTEBOOK: The film’s interested in spiritualism and the occult. It seems committed to the history, in a way, that’s very specific. So I wondered if that was something that just was underpinning the story you wanted to tell, or was that something that was of particular interest?
ASTER: It was definitely underpinning the story I wanted to tell, but essentially I was making a genre film, and I wanted it to be unabashedly a genre film. So there were a lot of tropes I was nodding towards, and one of them was certainly the seance, spiritualism as a device. What was exciting to me was the opportunity to take that device and treat it with a new kind of gravity. It’s up to the audience whether I succeeded there, but I did want to take spiritualism and the occult seriously. So I did a lot of research. I’m hoping: there’s a seance scene in the film that is a prolonged sequence, and it’s definitely a horror movie sequence. The goal was for it to border on silliness, but then to be acted viscerally in a way that’s new.
NOTEBOOK: Yeah, and actor Alex Wolff gets to a level of hysteria that makes the whole thing work really well. His transition from a normal kid to this kind of wreck of a human is amazing to watch.
ASTER: Yeah, and he really went there, too. He was there for about two months. I was worried about him! But as a director it’s very exciting to have an actor who commits himself to something so much.
NOTEBOOK: I wanted to ask about the art direction and the set, especially the house, which is so chilly and isolated. Can you tell me about your decision-making in terms of that house and its design?
ASTER: Production design is so important to me, and our production designer Grace Yun is wonderful. The way I work is that I created a shot list of the movie before I talk to anybody, that way I have the film in my head. Then I go to my production designer and my cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, and I walk them through the movie shot by shot. And that is usually about a three week process of drawing it out on dry-erase boards—so they have it in their heads as well. So what we’re talking about the same film, with the same vision. Then we looked for a house that would accommodate that shot list, knowing we’d have to basically gut the house and change it in every way, and we found it would be cheaper to do it on a stage. So we built the entire interior of the house on a stage: the first floor, second floor, attic. And everything with the treehouse was built from scratch. It was definitely a goal from the beginning to make the house this uncanny thing, which begins as a home but gradually more and more un-homelike.