Director Ari Aster Says 'Hereditary' Is A Family Drama At Its Core

Jun 11, 2018
Originally published on June 12, 2018 9:00 am

Hereditary has been called "emotionally devastating" and "disturbing" by critics and audiences alike. It's a supernatural horror film, with sinister things lurking just out of sight, but when writer-director Ari Aster was pitching his first feature-length film to studios, he says he was careful not to call it horror: "The film is a horror film, it's unabashedly one, but as I was pitching it, I was describing it as a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare."

The nightmare begins with the funeral of Joan, the Graham family matriarch, a formidable looking woman who peers at the audience from her portrait. Her daughter, Annie — played by Toni Collette — asks if she "should feel sad" about her mother's death, her grandson and husband seem indifferent — only Charlie, her granddaughter, (Millie Shapiro) seems to care. At first, the plot functions like a melodrama. There's clearly tension among the family members, in the way they avoid talking to each other or even really looking at each other.

Annie isolates herself from her family, working long hours on highly detailed, lifelike dioramas depicting scenes from her own life. Peter, her teenage son, (Alex Wolff) is preoccupied with girls and smoking weed with his friends under the school bleachers. And Charlie is taciturn, more interested in making strange toys from odds and ends (and a pigeon's head) than she is in making friends with her classmates.

Then, about 30 minutes in, something unspeakably awful happens — an event that Aster calls the film's "Janet Leigh stepping into the shower scene."

"It's designed to be a left turn that changes the course of the rest of the movie," he says, "but I guess it's really also designed to operate more like a chute that opens up under the audience and kind of drops them into hell."
The event throws the Graham family into hell too. Tensions that were already simmering under the surface begin to boil between Annie and Peter, Annie and her husband, Steve.

"I wanted the film to function first as a vivid family drama before I even bothered attending to the horror elements," Aster says. "This family is ultimately eating itself out of grief, and I wanted to make a film that took suffering seriously."

As Annie's grief leads her to spiral out of control, she meets a woman who introduces her to the world of the occult. The family's tragedy quickly devolves into a nightmarish hell of seances and demons, all part of a supernatural conspiracy that culminates in a screaming, almost ecstatically horrific finale.

"They already had these minor dysfunctions, right? The tinder had been set, so when grief came for this family, they weren't equipped to deal with it," says Caetlin Benson-Allott, a professor of film and media studies at Georgetown University who teaches classes on horror films. "That's a theme that a lot of us, I think, can identify with ... When life isn't perfect, when you're out of control and when maybe the people who are supposed to be protecting you are the ones who are doing the damage."

Hereditary stands out, she says, because it's barely more than a story about the horror of everyday life. Stripped of the supernatural and occult elements that dominate the third act, the film could almost function as a bleak portrait of a family collapsing under the weight of its grief and legacy. But for Aster, those elements were inherent to his story.

"I found it allowed me to approach the story more expressionistically," he says. "Like, there is this dollhouse motif, running through the film." The camera frames the characters as though they're figures in one of Annie's lifelike dioramas, watching them with an almost omniscient eye. "It just struck me as a solid metaphor for the family's situation, which is that they're ultimately people without any agency. They are like dolls in a dollhouse, being manipulated by these outside forces."

Benson-Allott says, "You really see that dark side [of the dollhouse] in Hereditary, in the way it shows us that recreating life can be an exploration of the dark side." And Annie's dioramas are dark, and one gets the sense that they are, for her, a kind of therapy. Her mother lies in a hospice in one, her mother looms in a bedroom doorway in another, her mother stands over Annie as she breastfeeds her child.

"It's absolutely a family melodrama, and family dramas are often horrifying," Benson-Allott says. "Horror is not the same thing as disgust or shock. But that's what American horror movies often hand us — those jump scares where something goes bang and the monster leaps out from behind a door. But horror is a profound recognition that things are not as they ought to be."

So Hereditary twists relatable themes and familiar tropes into something deeply unsettling — and Ari Aster knows it. "I always knew I was making a film that was potentially very alienating," he says. "It is a film whose primary aim is to upset the audience on a deep level."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Film critics and audiences have called the new film "Hereditary" traumatizing and terrifying. It's a supernatural horror movie with plenty lurking just out of sight. NPR's Mallory Yu says part of what makes it so scary is that it's rooted in something real - a family's grief and trauma.

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: "Hereditary" starts with a funeral.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEREDITARY")

TONI COLLETTE: (As Annie) It's heartening to see so many strange new faces here today. I know my mom would be very touched.

YU: That's Toni Collette, who plays Annie Graham. She's delivering the eulogy at her mother's funeral. And during a grief counseling session a few days later, it becomes clear that Annie has some complicated feelings about the woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEREDITARY")

COLLETTE: (As Annie) She's completely manipulative. I didn't let her anywhere near me when I had my first, my son, which is why I gave her my daughter, who she immediately stabbed her hooks into. And I just - I felt guilty again. I felt guilty again.

YU: For the first 30 minutes, "Hereditary" feels mostly like a tense family drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEREDITARY")

COLLETTE: (As Annie) I just don't want to put any more stress on my family.

YU: In the wake of her mother's death, Annie isolates herself from her husband, working long hours on highly detailed dioramas depicting scenes from her own life. Peter, her teenage son, is surly and gets high under the school bleachers with his friends. And her youngest daughter, Charlie, is taciturn and strange until...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEREDITARY")

YU: ...Something unspeakably awful happens.

ARI ASTER: Something happens that is our Janet Leigh stepping into the shower scene.

YU: That's Ari Aster. He wrote and directed "Hereditary," and he says that scene...

ASTER: It's designed to be a left turn that changes the course of the rest of the movie. But I guess it's really also designed to operate more like a chute that opens up under the audience and kind of drops them into hell.

YU: It throws the Graham family into hell, too. Tensions that were already simmering under the surface begin to boil between Annie and her son, Peter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEREDITARY")

COLLETTE: (As Annie) I mean, why would I want to say something, so I can watch you sneer at me?

ALEX WOLFF: (As Peter) Sneer at you - I don't ever sneer at you.

COLLETTE: (As Annie) Oh, sweetie, you don't have to. You get your point across.

WOLFF: (As Peter) OK, so fine - then say what you want to say then.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Peter...

COLLETTE: (As Annie) I don't want to say anything. I've tried saying things.

WOLFF: (As Peter) OK, so try again. Release yourself.

COLLETTE: (As Annie) Oh, release you, you mean.

WOLFF: (As Peter) Yeah, fine, release me. Just say it.

ASTER: I really wanted the film to function first as a vivid family drama.

YU: This is director Ari Aster's first feature-length movie, and he says when he was pitching it to studios, he was careful not to call it a horror film.

ASTER: And the film is a horror film, and it's unabashedly one. But as I was pitching it, I was describing it as a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEREDITARY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What's happening?

YU: There's a seance...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEREDITARY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You're scaring me.

YU: ...Demons and an innocuous noise that by the end of the film because downright terrifying.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEREDITARY")

YU: But even as a supernatural conspiracy slots into place, the film stays rooted in that family's dysfunction. Caetlin Benson-Allott is a professor of film and media studies at Georgetown University.

CAETLIN BENSON-ALLOTT: They already had these minor dysfunctions, right? The tinder had been set so that when grief came for this family, they weren't equipped to deal with it. And that's a theme that a lot of us, I think, can identify with.

YU: Benson-Allott says that's part of what makes "Hereditary" so disturbing.

BENSON-ALLOTT: It's dealing with deeper and more lasting themes in horror - when life isn't perfect, when you're out of control and when maybe the people who are supposed to be protecting you are the ones who are doing the damage.

YU: "Hereditary" takes those themes and twists them into something deeply unsettling, and director Ari Aster knows it.

ASTER: I always knew that I was making a film that was potentially very alienating, you know? And it is a film whose primary aim is to upset the audience on a deep level.

YU: Which was apparently what a lot of people wanted this weekend. "Hereditary" made over $13 million, well above most box office predictions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEREDITARY")

YU: Mallory Yu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.