Hereditary may end up being the most frightening movie of the year, though it may soon receive some stiff competition from the likes of The Nun, Halloween and Suspiria. But what separates Hereditary from those movies, at least in terms of what fans have learned about them so far, is writer-director Ari Aster’s unconventional sense of horror. Although much has been made about the filmmaker’s claim that Hereditary is not a horror movie first and foremost, Aster has more to say on how he uses the genre to explore the emotional trauma of the Graham family.
Whilw the Blu-ray release for Hereditary does not include commentary on the film from Aster, it does contain a featurette, “Cursed: The True Nature of Hereditary,” that sheds light on the filmmaker’s approach, and how he turned a character-driven domestic drama into one of the 2018’s most harrowing cinematic experiences.
“For me, this was always a film that was a family drama first. So I wanted to make a film that was very firmly rooted in this very complicated family dynamic.… And over the course of the film, everything just sort of unravels into a nightmare,” the filmmaker says.
Although Aster may not have conceptualized Hereditary as a horror film during the writing of it, he was very much in tune with the genre’s influence and how it shapes characters. “I feel like I’m always writing from a pretty personal place, but I also love genre,” Aster says. His direction of Hereditary with what he refers to as a “horror filter” comes from a couple of interesting places. Although his film has warranted comparisons to The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now (both from 1973), Aster’s horror influences aren’t necessarily what one would first think of when walking out of Hereditary. “As a kid I really loved horror films. And there are a few in particular that really traumatized me,” Aster shares. “Carrie (1976) was one that really bothered me.… And then there’s a film by Peter Greenaway called The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), which is not designated a horror film although it’s deeply upsetting.”
While Carrie is considered a horror classic, its influence and generating of nightmares are not necessarily due to its supernatural aspects. At the root of Brian de Palma’s film, adapted from the novel by Stephen King, is a girl trying to escape the oppressive religious fundamentalism of her mother and the cruel treatment by her peers. Carrie frightens us because we care about Carrie White due to Sissy Spacek’s portrayal. She feels like a real human being, fragile and inimitable, rather than the characters born of artifice that we see repeated again and again across mediums. There are certainly similarities to be found between Carrie and Toni Collette’s tremendous performance as Annie in Hereditary. These are characters with something repressed inside of them. The dark head space of Annie wasn’t originally a place Collette wanted to go. “I had said to my agent I don’t want to do anything intense or heavy. I had done quite a bit of that and I just wanted to do comedies and have fun. And then he sent this to me and I was like, 'Screw you,' ” Collette says before breaking into laughter.
Laughter, of course, is a scarce commodity in Hereditary. The weight that Annie carries permeates every corner of her family’s home, her grief crowding out any other emotion. During a support group for those who have lost loved ones, Annie highlights parts of her past, awful moments so overwhelming and tinged with absurdity that it’s impossible not to stifle some horrific amusement at it all. During the featurette, Collette shares a bit more of Annie’s backstory that didn’t make it into the film. “She met her husband, Steve, played by Gabriel [Byrne], when he was her psychiatrist. When they stopped working together, he continued to care for her and continued a deeper relationship.” Arguably, part of Annie’s continuous unraveling is that she begins to lose her hold as matriarch and once again becomes an unwilling patient. Aster explains that even without any of the supernatural aspects, Annie’s struggle is what drives the film to its dark places. “[Toni Collette] plays Annie as a very tortured woman with a very complicated past, and she’s somebody who’s really wrestling with that, and is wrestling with her role as a mother, a wife, but also, certainly as a daughter. And that’s really the heart of the film.”
Yet, surrounding this heart are narrow passageways leading to darker revelations. The space in which Hereditary takes place becomes a character itself. Shot in Utah, the Graham house where much of the film takes place was built from the ground up to fully capture Aster’s vision. The creation of most of the furniture and props that fill the interior rooms to create the film’s aesthetic harkens back to Aster’s influence from Greenaway and his use of setting to create unease. On The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Aster says, “There’s a certain level of artifice to [Greenaway’s] aesthetic that always bothered me, and it’s a film that I end up showing people a lot before we make something, especially on this one because we were dealing so much with artifice.” There is something overripe about Greenaway’s film, and while beautiful, there is always the sense of something amiss, about to spoil and go bad. Aster finds his own way to this notion in his film. Production designer Grace Yun’s carefully constructed rooms and Steve Newburn’s miniatures create a sense of control that isn’t really there. While Hereditary, immediately through its establishing shot, makes us believe that these characters are like dolls, able to be manipulated and placed where they need to be by a caring hand, the truth is that the orderly nature of things cannot possibly control the chaotic forces lurking inside these characters. The normalcy of the Grahams’ surroundings is as much a facade as their mental wellness, and only by the time we reach the third act, where the house devolves into darkness, do we lose any sense of structure and see everything as it truly is.
Aster’s taste in the genre points to a kind of domestic fear less embedded in the supernatural and more so in psychologies and the details people rely on to create a sense of normalcy that is not really there. “I wanted to make a film that stays with people, and that haunts people,” Aster says. Judging by the reactions to his film, both positive and negative, it seems he has done just that. Whether you loved it or loathed it, we’re still talking about and dissecting Hereditary, and there’s no artifice in that.