"Hereditary" Director Ari Aster Wants To TraumATIZE You

by Sid Feddema

HUGO BOSS jacket, shirt, and tie.

HUGO BOSS jacket, shirt, and tie.

In life, as in a good horror film, the biggest surprises come from where you least expect them. He might not have seemed like much twenty years ago—a young, self-proclaimed “fat kid with a crippling stutter” feeling generally alienated in a small town in New Mexico. But something was bubbling up in the mind of Ari Aster. Fed on a near-obsessive love for movies (five a week, the more grotesque the better), a well-thumbed copy of Leonard Maltin’s mammoth Movie Guide at hand, wearing out the welcome mat at Hastings’s video store, already trying his hand at screenplays: it was an imagination that would come back to haunt us. 

That kid is now the most promising horror auteur to emerge on the scene in recent memory, thanks to his searing debut feature, Hereditary, out in wide release June 8th. If you were monitoring the critical buzz coming out of Sundance this year you couldn’t have missed it, and if you appreciate the art form of the well-worded hype-inducing blurb, this was music: “pure emotional terrorism”; “a ballet of menace”; “an absolute nightmare.” It’s holding strong at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, a feat for any movie, but especially for a “genre” film. I was chomping at the bit to see it, and even with a nip of whiskey to calm the nerves, I can attest to the film’s relentless, almost malicious power. It’s genuinely shocking and perfectly crafted— everything lands, from the brooding, dissonant score (an ideal platform for avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson), to the Swiss-watch precision of the cinematography and set design, to the barn-burning performances from Toni Collette and Alex Wolff. It’s a lot of fun, too. 

If there’s a stereotype for a “horror director,” I can’t tell if Aster fits it or subverts it. He’s immediately likable, gracious, funny, a bit soft-spoken. But there is also a bit of mischief in his thoughtfulness that, if you’re looking for it, suggests a hint of darkness below the surface. It’s interesting, meeting someone whose dream is coming true in real time. As we speak, Aster still evinces a bit of gleeful shellshock at how it’s all gone down, along with a sincerity that hasn’t been hammered out by incessant press trips. There is no prelude that can prepare you for this type of surprise success, even if the short he made while at AFI, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, was a viral sensation in certain circles. “It’s obviously a huge relief, but also it’s very surprising,” he tells me, regarding the film’s glowing critical reception. “I’m waiting for the backlash. I’ve been sitting by the door, waiting for it.” 

Hereditary, which Aster aptly calls “an existential horror film,” succeeds in part because the characterization is so much richer than standard thriller fare. Underpinning the classic supernatural elements is a deeply affecting family drama rooted in trauma and grief. It’s that aspect of it, along with the standard voyeuristic intrigue that surrounds creative people (and especially horror directors), which compels me to read into the film for clues about his background. It turns out that that’s not entirely off the mark, with a disclaimer. “I want to say that none of the characters in the film are surrogates for me or my family,” he says with a smile. “My childhood, as far as my family is concerned, was very happy. My parents are incredibly supportive and excited to see the film.” But. “There were some very hard years that we kind of all suffered together, and there were some years that were so bad, this endless succession of very hard things happening, that the prevailing feeling became, 

‘We are cursed.’ So that is probably, in a broad sense, where this film came from. That feeling of being cursed—I went and literalized that. Put those feelings through a genre filter and out came Hereditary.” 

It’s the acting that brings the whole thing home, and there’s already Oscar-buzz in the air for Collette’s role as Annie, the mother in the film. I ask Aster what it was like for the actors to maintain the emotional intensity required for the shoot. “I can say that for Alex Wolff, who plays Peter (the son in the family)—he is somebody who stays in character. So he basically was Peter for two months, and he really was in a very, very dark place. To such an extent that it felt like what he was doing was dangerous. I was worried about him, but at the same time I was getting a great performance and I was excited,” he says with a wry chuckle. “But then, with Toni, she is somebody who can just turn it on and turn it off. She’s incredibly disciplined. I do know that this was a tough one for her. She has talked about this being the hardest thing she has had to do, and I believe it. She went really deep.” 

One of the primary themes Hereditary explores is control, or the lack of it, in the lives of the main characters. The fear at the center of the film is the fear having no agency, no free will. But the film itself is a masterpiece of what comes off as almost Kubrickian control—Aster went so far as to have the entire interior of the house constructed on a soundstage, with all items built from scratch and complete with moveable panels and walls to allow the precise tracking shots he wanted. There’s a suggestive parallel in the film as Toni Collette’s character seeks a sense of control through her artistic practice, recreating real-life events in distressingly detailed miniature. “Annie is an artist and feels out of control in her own life. She doesn’t feel like she has agency,” Aster explains. “And so, she creates these replicas of real places in her life, probably in order to seize some degree of control over her surroundings. Ultimately, that is just an illusion. The miniatures felt like a pretty potent metaphor for what is really happening in the film. These are people being manipulated by these outside forces, and they are ultimately like dolls in a malign dollhouse.” I ask him if it’s a sentiment he’s shared. “I have always felt that we ultimately have no real control over our own lives.” 

He may not have control over his life, but as an auteur he has control over his films, and on that front he has been rewarded with glowing praise and a horde of horror buffs eager for the wide release in early June. But why? Why do we enjoy submitting ourselves to something whose main objective is to terrify, traumatize, and generally freak us out? There’s an argument for Hereditary as the feel-bad movie of the year. But perhaps, as has been suggested by psychologists, the ability to experience something traumatizing while knowing deep-down that you’re safe in a theater, that it can’t really hurt you, helps us to handle otherwise radioactive emotional material from a safe distance. It’s horror, but it’s controlled horror, unlike the relentless bad news we currently receive from all sectors of our troubled planet. And maybe it’s the same for Aster—when he was a kid in a family that felt cursed, horror films offered an escape of a kind, a place where things were worse than in reality. And now he’s the one giving us nightmares; he’s in control. Or maybe all this is just a verbose way of telling myself it’s only a movie so I can finally get some sleep.

Written by Sid Feddema

Photographed by Tyler Nevitt .

Styled by Morgan Vickery