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How Ari Aster made the best horror movie of 2018

The writer-director talks through the making of Hereditary

You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family curses. In Ari Aster’s Hereditary, a film in which the horror begins at home, a suburban household struggle to confront their personal demons. Annie (Toni Collette), a diorama artist, attends a funeral with her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and their two children, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff). A close relative has died and no one’s particularly moved. Annie, whose mother is in the casket, detachedly wonders, “Should I be sadder?”

From the get-go, something’s not quite right. This is a family introduced, via camera trickery, as toys within a doll house. Their fate is already sealed. Charlie asks her mother, “Who’s gonna take care of me?” The 13-year-old then adds, “But when you die?” Around the 30-minute mark, though, something happens. The incident is jaw-dropping, hidden from the trailer, and changes the film entirely. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that these are people who go to – and go through – great pains just to prove a point.

So why is Hereditary responsible for viewers citing sleepless nights? The horror is undoubtedly effective. It’s light on clichéd jump scares, and heavy on pure, persistent dread. The screening I attended was so tense that someone (or something?) smashed a wine glass during the climax. But above all, the film is upsetting. What keeps you up at 4am isn’t so much the supernatural elements, but what Aster, the writer-director, is saying about family dynamics, the irreversibility of grief, and the insurmountable weight of individual guilt. It’s about being unable to talk truthfully to loved ones, regardless of whether they’re under the same roof or six feet under the ground.

Hereditary is unabashedly a horror film,” says Aster, speaking over the phone from New York. “In a lot of ways, it’s in dialogue with other horror films. But I do know that it was important for me that the film functioned first as a family drama. I know that I’m never affected by anything if I’m not invested in the people to whom the genre things are happening.”

The film has already been deemed a horror masterpiece. Publications, including this one, have compared it with The Exorcist, Psycho and The Shining. However, I would posit that it shares just as much with sombre, death-obsessed dramas like The Ice Storm, Manchester by the Sea, and Three Colours: Blue. “I showed 45 Years by Andrew Haigh to the crew, because it’s the best film I’ve seen in the last five years,” Aster says of his affinity with British directors. “And I screened All or Nothing by Mike Leigh to them, because he makes the most vivid character studies I’ve ever seen.”

Hereditary is unabashedly a horror film. In a lot of ways, it’s in dialogue with other horror films. But I do know that it was important for me that the film functioned first as a family drama” – Ari Aster

In fact, Aster spent half a decade honing his craft with non-horror shorts. He gained infamy in 2011 when his 30-minute student project, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, leaked online and went viral. The button-pushing comedy involves a black middle-class family with a secret: the son has been sexually abusing his father for years. Also of note is Munchausen, a silent movie from 2013, in which a clingy mother poisons her son as part of a Phantom Thread-y scheme. These shorts, lensed by Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, clearly anticipate the themes of Aster’s eventual homemade horror – just not with the outright genre scares.

“The shorts I was making were, in many ways, very academic,” Aster remembers. “They’re movie movies. The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is a tongue-in-cheek essay on the Sirkian melodrama, and Munchausen is chasing this idealised Norman Rockwell, Disney aesthetic. The content darkens, but the aesthetic doesn’t. I’m hoping Hereditary is more grounded in character and a sort of reality.”

What the shorts and Hereditary indicate, though, is that Aster loves to prod and poke the audience. I mention a plot point that Hereditary shares with Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built. One sparked irate walkouts at Cannes, the other has 94 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. “I love Lars von Trier,” Aster laughs. “Dogville is my favourite movie of the last 20 years. Nymphomaniac and Melancholia aren’t quite as exciting as The Kingdom, Breaking the Waves, or The Idiots, but I’ll always love him for being him.”

In an odd way, is Aster disappointed that his sick, depraved horror is almost universally beloved? “If anything, I’ve been surprised by how warmly received the film has been – and it’s a welcome surprise, of course. But I always knew I was making something that was potentially very alienating, and it’s a film whose primary aim is to upset the audience, hopefully on a deep level. It’s been a surprise to see that so many people are willing to go there.

“And the backlash is starting to happen now. I shouldn’t admit that I’ve read some negative reviews, but those are always the ones I make sure to read. I think any film that has any sort of hyperbole surrounding it is asking for the pendulum to swing the other way. And ultimately, this is, again, unabashedly a horror film. It is playing with tropes and clichés. It is nodding explicitly to certain other films like Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, and Psycho. I’m hoping that the film doesn’t play as pastiche, and that it’s breathing new and personal life into the genre.”

“I shouldn’t admit that I’ve read some negative reviews, but those are always the ones I make sure to read”

It helps, then, when you have what Aster praises as “an amazing cast who knew what was required”. Collette, who portrayed another distressed mother in The Sixth Sense, delivers her best crying since Muriel’s Wedding. Shapiro, I’m shocked to learn, was Matilda on Broadway – I just can’t imagine her as anyone other than a disturbed girl who decapitates dead pigeons for pleasure. These are characters who garner both sympathy and terror, and even their casual dinner table conversations feel like a punch in the gut. It makes me wonder: does Aster believe in family curses?

“No,” the director says. “My philosophy is basically that we’re all tied to the limb.” He pauses. “But I have experienced several blows happening in succession in my life, and not necessarily to me, but to the people I love. I think it’s very easy to feel cursed. It’s a very relatable feeling. Part of the joy of making a genre film is that you can literalise feelings and go down a more expressionist route where you have to find a catharsis in whatever story you’re telling.”

In the horror landscape, Hereditary also happens to be frighteningly ahead of the admittedly lousy competition. Whereas A Quiet Place stuffs its supposedly barebones concept with an overblown, patronising score, Hereditary sustains its chilling atmosphere with original music by saxophonist Colin Stetson. There are scenes where the audience gasp at different moments, depending on how long they take to spot a subtle background detail – Stetson’s creeping compositions are a reminder that we should be afraid at all times.

I suggest, rather cynically, that there are usually two good horror films per year. 2018’s batch will likely be Hereditary and Suspiria. Aster isn’t sure if he agrees. “There’s been a lot of aesthetically rich horror films that have come out in the last several years. The Babadook is this perfectly paced, beautiful film. The Witch is a beautifully made film. Get Out is so intelligently written. I feel like there’s so many great things happening right now.

“I know that I put a lot into Hereditary, and I’m proud of what it is. Beyond the fact that the film takes its time and asks for a certain amount of patience from the audience – and I hope it rewards that patience by the end – I know that I’m something of an aesthete. I care about aesthetics and I love filmmaking. I think that there’s a lot that can be done in horror. I wanted to make a film that was simultaneously restrained and also driven by maximalist attitudes of going as far as you can with the toys.”

“I read a review recently that said Hereditary is like a death-metal version of Cries and Whispers. I don’t think I could be more satisfied with a summation of any film” – Ari Aster

Up next for Hereditary is, I’m guessing, a backlash, a backlash to the backlash, and an Oscar nomination for Collette. Aster, though, is reteaming with A24 for his second feature, Midsommer. The film, which Aster has also written, involves a grieving woman who recuperates in a remote corner of Sweden. I mention that it sounds positively Bergman.

“It’s funny,” Aster laughs, “I read a review recently that said Hereditary is like a death-metal version of Cries and Whispers. I don’t think I could be more satisfied with a summation of any film that I intended to do. This one is something I’ll be shooting in August, in Hungary, and it’ll be doubling for Sweden. It’s a break-up movie that becomes a horror film.”

So a death-metal version of Scenes from a Marriage? “That’s not that far away from it!” he says. “It’s a younger cast than Scenes from a Marriage, but it’s more appropriate than you might think. It’ll likely be the last horror movie I make for a while. I love the genre, but I’ve got a lot of other projects I’m excited about pursuing. This is the only horror movie among them.”