It’s a bit unnerving to watch the new horror film Hereditary and think about the fact that writer/director Ari Aster was inspired to make the movie — which is about a family going through a series of awful, increasingly inexplicable occurrences following the death of its former matriarch — after his own clan endured a run of bad luck that left Aster half-wondering if they were cursed.
“The beautiful thing about the horror genre or just genre filmmaking in general is that you can take personal material and you can just sort of push it through the genre filter and out comes a work of relative invention, right?” says Aster when Den of Geek gets him on the phone. “So I can say that the feelings that fueled the writing of the film were very personal and coming from personal experiences.”
But, he adds, “None of the characters in the film are surrogates for anybody in my life. And ultimately the movie did take on a life of its own. So again, the beauty of the genre is that you can exercise demons without ultimately putting yourself on the slab. But, yeah, when I watch the film I do feel that the feelings behind it are close to home.”
The feelings that Aster are talking about may hit a nerve whether you understand his personal experiences or not. The family in Hereditary — led by artist Annie (Toni Collette) and psychotherapist Steven (Gabriel Byrne) — finds itself dealing with almost insurmountable grief and trauma, which Aster develops painfully and truthfully even before the supernatural aspects fully kick in. Making us care about the characters even before the horror starts hammering at them is the key to the genre’s finest offerings, a fact that Aster was cognizant of.
“I wrote Hereditary after I’d already written about nine or ten other feature screenplays,” says Aster. “After I’d devoted several years to trying to get one of them financed, I wrote Hereditary thinking that it would be easier to get a horror movie made. Ultimately, that was an instinct that was validated. But it began sort of cynically, and then from there the question became, ‘Okay, what do I want from the horror genre? Where do I fit in? How do I want to contribute to it? And what are the traditions that I want to contribute to?’
“And from there I started thinking about the films that I’ve loved the most growing up and the films that I still love the most in the genre,” he continues. “Films like Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, The Innocents by Jack Clayton. Carrie was a film that really did a number on me as a kid. I just wanted to make a film that really took its time, that really immersed you in the lives and the dynamics of the characters at the heart of the film. A film that makes sure to function as a vivid family drama first before even thinking about tending to any of the horror elements.”
Aster spent a lot of time developing the characters of the Graham family, which also include teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and troubled daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), both of whom have their own terrible roles to play in the gradual unraveling of the family and its household. “The original cut of the film was three hours long,” says Aster, “There’s about 30 scenes that are on the cutting room floor that are really all just in service of character development. But I do feel that (the theatrical release) is the definitive cut of the film, because a lot of what we cut out feels inherent. You feel those things in the scenes that are there. The actors were so fantastic that they were able to do a lot with a little.”
The center of the story is Collette’s Annie, whose relationships with the other members of her family — including her dead and mostly unseen (except in a few brief shots) mother — and whose investigation of her family’s history form the nexus of the events that bring them to their knees. “I wrote a 60-paragraph biography for Annie which I gave to Toni,” Aster reveals. “Which is important for me as well, because so much of the movie is about this suggested history that belongs to Annie and to her mother, who is a character we never really get to meet. But her shadow hangs over the entire film.
“I hope that the characters feel rich,” the director muses. “It’s easier for me to speak about my intentions than what I actually did, because ultimately I don’t really know what I did. The movie changed in the edit and those were changes that I was always there for. But the movie kind of tells you what it wants to be as you’re cutting it together and it becomes both something else and maybe a more crystallized version of what it always was.”
Aster doesn’t think of himself as a “horror director,” per se, but he does acknowledge a deep affinity for the genre and its keystone films. “I was especially into horror films as a kid,” he recalls. “When I was between probably the ages of 11 and 13 I was obsessed. I exhausted the horror section of every video store that I could find. I’m sure I watched everything available to me. I haven’t been as much of an enthusiast over the last decade or so. I feel like some of the horror movies are made in such a cynical way that they tend to be perceived as guilty until proven innocent, quality-wise.
“But there are always exceptions to the rule of the bad horror movie,” he continues. “I’m always excited by those. I think the most notable exception for me would be a South Korean film called The Wailing which came out a couple of years ago which I recommend everybody go see. It’s on Netflix. But I’ve always loved the genre and I’m surprised it took me so long to write something in the horror genre, because my sensibility has always been very dark.”
Aster, who received his MFA in Directing from the AFI (American Film Institute) Conservatory, may be part of a generation of filmmakers interested in utilizing horror the way it was used during what many consider the genre’s golden age: the late Sixties and early Seventies, which gave us films like Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, Martin, Dawn of the Dead, Last House on the Left and others that incorporated social or psychological subtexts into truly ghastly goings-on. Other recent, acclaimed entries in the field — such as The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, and Get Out — back up that idea.
“I don’t think that’s anything new,” says Aster about the genre’s renaissance as a serious form. “I mentioned Don’t Look Now earlier and I think that that’s a very serious movie about grief and relationships and marriage. So I feel like all of those movies are contributing to an older tradition. Even the Val Lewton horror films were about more than they seemed to be about. I think back to Phil Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was a social satire, not a million miles away from the way that Get Out is playing with the genre.
“Get Out is a film that’s very much about race,” he adds. “But it’s dressed up like an Ira Levin thriller. I think that’s one of the beauties of the genre — that filmmakers are able to smuggle other movies into it as long as they’re meeting the demands of the genre, which means that they’re finding the catharsis in the story. And usually the more horrible the catharsis, the better the horror film.”
Hereditary is out now in theaters.