“My mother was a very secretive and private woman. She had private rituals, private friends, private anxieties.”
I saw “Hereditary” in the movie theatre when it first came out in 2018 – three times in a row. That’s how impressed I was with Ari Aster’s film debut. I wanted to dissect it, analyze it and just immerse myself in this instant horror classic. Each time I took somebody new with me to experience it – fellow cinephiles who love scary movies. The first one sat next to me chewing on his nails, and when I called him out on it, he was unaware of his behavior. The second viewing, I took a film reviewer friend, and he started uttering “Oh my…”– similarly oblivious to his nervous tic. The third time, my companion was sinking in the chair. On a recent evening, I again marveled at Aster’s mastery of the medium to make us feel a type of dread that we rarely encounter. It plunges deep into a world of nightmares, paranoia and the occult – and one of the biggest fears we’ve been wrestling with the past few months, the feeling of being pawns in a scheme we don’t have any control over. It’s all done with great cinematic flair. Fair warning though, “Hereditary” is not for the faint of heart.
As with all great horror movies, in “Hereditary” Aster exploits cinema as a way to navigate the psyche. Early on in the film we’re given some valuable bits of information. While attending a grief therapy group, the main character, Annie, tells us about her recently deceased mother and her immediate family. She says that her mother suffered from DID – which stands for disassociate identity disorder – a mental illness in which the person maintains at least two personalities. She goes on to report that her father suffered from psychotic depression and that her brother had schizophrenia. These facts are not mentioned casually. The camera concentrates in on the actress and slowly pans out as she relates them. They are invaluable for they give us background on the state of our protagonist. The film will spook with talk of the occult, incantations and rituals – but it’s the psychological aspect, the unreliability of the narrator – and that we’re seeing things through her eyes – that is of utmost importance.
Annie is a miniature artist who creates elaborate life-like dollhouse exhibits based on her personal biography. Her Lilliputian rooms are time-consuming to make for everything is recreated with painstaking detail to the point that you look at them and you think they’re the real thing. She is getting ready for a major art exhibit entitled “Small World.” Her process speaks volumes about her need to bring everything to a wieldy size – even complex family issues or things outside of her comprehension. Her life obviously has been scarred by the mental illnesses of those close to her.
When the film begins, the family is heading to grandma’s funeral. She lived in the house with Annie as well as Annie’s understanding husband and two teenaged children – older brother Peter and 13 year-old Charlie. The latter was taken under grandma’s care when she was born – and is an introvert who has inherited her mother’s artistic tendencies. Grandma’s death is the catalyst for some dark stuff being unleashed upon the family. The grief that Annie has kept inside her becomes a channel to forces and emotions beyond her control.
When I watch movies, my admiration gravitates towards the filmmaker, and Aster is one heck of an auteur. He followed this feature with the equally brilliant and chill-inducing “Midsommar” (2019). Aster photographs and stages things with such an assured command. His approach is visually unsettling. The opening scene pans the camera across a replica of Annie’s work studio, and it focuses on a small miniature within that space. We zero in on Annie’s son’s bedroom and see her husband walk in to wake up Peter. So we’re inside an artwork within an artwork. We’re journeying deep within the confines of the imagination. The rest of the movie has that controlled ‘staging’ – as if we were watching little figurines enacting things from some disturbed person’s imagination or not so distant past. We know that Annie wears a headlamp affixed with a magnifying glass when she works on her art – and once in a while pay attention to a reflective light that shines on the characters as the story unfolds. In good filmmaking, we are able to feel the hands and vision of a director unspooling their narrative before us – in this case, that is taken to a whole other level. He is a major talent.
This whole endeavor succeeds because of the go-for broke commitment of Toni Colette as Annie. Earlier this Summer, I chatted with director Charlie Kauffman about working with her in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and what a fearless performer she is. Her face is so expressive – it’s almost like silly putty – morphing into despair, anguish, terror and disbelief. One of the main reasons you’re so horrified watching this film is because you believe wholeheartedly in the emotions she’s going through.
Creativity, motherhood, family ties, and grief are all themes that circle within the confines of this wicked film. Keep the lights on.
Annie: “I never wanted to be your mother.”
Annie: “I was scared. I didn’t feel like a mother. But she pressured me.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and Kanapy and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Redbox, DIRECTV, Apple TV and FandangNOW.
Written by Ari Aster
Directed by Ari Aster
Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd and Gabriel Byrne
Writer and Director Ari Aster on his Influences for “Hereditary”
“I think when I first just endeavored to write a horror film and hopefully to direct it, I had to ask myself, what do I want from horror films? And then what affected me as a kid? And what I realized I wanted from horror films — because I also love horror, but I’m not somebody who goes to see everything. And in fact, I only go to see something if I’ve been convinced to, because I’ve become pessimistic about the genre. Because I feel like so many of those films are made very cynically. And I feel like that’s often how that roller coaster ride thing comes about, is that the people making them are not necessarily working from a very personal place, and they’re not really … The goal is to meet the demands of the genre, and then to startle people a few times, but then let them off the hook. And I have never felt that that’s really what the purpose of the genre is. And when I think about the films that really affected me as a kid, they were the ones that left me in a place of not just irresolution, but also, I had to contend with not just what had happened in the film, but the themes of that film. And so the films that really scared me as a kid were films like De Palma’s ‘Carrie,’ which is actually, really, it’s kind of a comedy. It’s very campy, but at the same time, it’s playing with audience sympathies in such a brutal way. And it’s a deeply sad … It’s very sorrowful. It’s a very sad comedy. It’s a nightmare comedy. It’s definitely a horror film. And its images really burn themselves into my mind
…And the other film was Peter Greenaway’s ‘The Cook,’ ‘the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,’ which isn’t technically a horror film, but it is a terrifying film. And it is … It’s also made by somebody who I believe is an authentic misanthrope. Somebody who truly hates people. You can feel that he hates people. He hasn’t even really give them personalities. That’s how little he believes in people. And then beyond that, he’s such an aesthete, that he’s putting aesthetics so far above people, which is something I actually wanted to avoid. But I remember that those films really just insinuated themselves into my consciousness and just didn’t let go. And I hated them for it. I really didn’t like it. I saw them when I was too young. But I also … I guess when I started making this film, I was thinking about those. I was thinking … I feel like there’s this dialogue that happens between an audience and a filmmaker. And especially in horror films, it’s like the audience is going in and saying, I dare you. I dare you to scare me. I’m going in, and I hope you do, ’cause that’s why I’m here. But there’s a feeling of superiority that happens when you don’t. When it doesn’t actually serve that purpose or fulfill that … Or satisfy that demand. And I feel like it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that really, really, really preys in an uncompromising way on real, existential fears. And I’m not saying that ‘Hereditary’ does that, but I know that that’s something I was thinking about and something I wanted to do.” (collider.com)
Toni Collette on “Hereditary”
“I’m an optimistic person, and I think there’s a certain amount of warmth I possess. I did have to have quite a few conversations with Ari, because I love my family, and this woman, it took me a minute to wrap my head around the fact that she really disliked her mother. And she didn’t even really know why. Ultimately, the story is about a woman having an awakening and a revelation. You associate an awakening with something positive, and there is nothing positive about this. All these feelings that have been the undercurrent of her life, that she’s never understood, that made her feel so horrible because she’s so lost without understanding why — they suddenly come to the fore. During the eulogy, I tried to neutralize it. If I said it really neutrally, she would get away with it. If I said it with any vindictive passion, it would have been like, “You can’t say those things! There are people looking at you!” You know what I mean? They’re here to celebrate the life of this woman that I really didn’t like or understand, and didn’t feel quite in tune with, and who I was very, very angry at. It was almost like a performance from Annie, in that she was censoring herself as she was doing it and almost performing for the people.”…I love that it’s ambiguous, too. Because [her mom] is there and she’s not there, and you don’t know whether it’s in my mind. You don’t know quite what’s going on. So it’s slightly unclear whether it’s almost hopeful when I’m seeing her, or whether I’m just making it up, or spooking myself. I love that by the end of the movie, you really don’t know whether my character is losing her mind or finding out something very real. I love that it feels like the ground is shifting. It’s really just great filmmaking to have the audience identify with these characters and their pain because then you’re investing in them emotionally. And when it does turn, it’s even more horrifying.” (vulture.com)
Ari Aster on Toni Collette
“It’s all in the script. But the demand, the challenge, that was there in the script to an actress, always worried me. Because I just knew, I’m asking for a lot here. And this is a part that requires that the actress close her eyes and just jump off the deep end. But that can also be embarrassing sometimes. You need an actor who’s totally in control, while also completely relinquishing control. So I’m very dictatorial with the blocking, which I think can be very hard for actors. And I’m sure it was hard for the actors in this film, because the blocking is set. But I try, or I hope I block it in a way that gives them some freedom in the scene. But as far as Toni doing what she does in this film, that’s just casting. That was me giving it to her, and then she took it…There’s a scene where she’s suffering over something that happened very recently. And there’s a lot of screaming and crying involved. That, she knew … That was in the script, but she knew exactly what she needed to do. And so we got very few takes there. For all those shots, that’s about three takes. And I think we used the first one on two of them…So she’s amazing. But yes, it is a matter of gauging what’s right. What the right pitch is. But I think the actors got into a zone, especially together, where they just … Their instincts were pretty right. In so many ways, it was harmonious. It was a 30-day shoot, or a 32-day shoot, so it was very — and again, it was three hours long, It was 156 scenes at first — so it was an extreme challenge. But beyond how stressful that was, it was a pretty harmonious shoot in that everybody who was there needed to be there. It felt like the right team in every way.” (collider.com)
About Writer and Director Ari Aster
Born in New York, Aster’s family briefly lived in England before moving to New Mexico, where he spent his teen years. Like Wolff’s character in “Hereditary,” Aster had a younger brother for whom he often felt responsible. His father was a musician; his mother a poet. “With any family that’s very creative, there’s opera, there’s drama,” said Alejandro de Leon, Aster’s longtime producer and classmate at AFI’s film program. “There’s a lot of passions that comes from an all-creative environment.” Even before he hit puberty, he counted Roman Polanski and Nicolas Roeg among his favorite directors, and developed obsessions with auteurs whose work oscillates from dark comedy to psychological terror with precise rhythms. He began directing shorts at the College of Santa Fe, then entered AFI’s directing program, where he bonded with de Leon over a mutual disdain for “Little Miss Sunshine.” De Leon recalled that Aster “saw beyond whatever the artifice of those characters were.” By that same token, when the pair went to see Michael Haneke’s austere black-and-white drama “The White Ribbon” at AFI with the director in attendance, Aster cried when he met Haneke after the screening. Aster worshipped auteurs whose fixations meshed with his own. When developing “Hereditary,” he chose to single out Mike Leigh. Despite some pitch meetings that reduced “Hereditary” to “‘Rosemary’s Baby’ meets ‘Ordinary People,’” Aster had other ideas. He required his cast to watch “All or Nothing,” Leigh’s 2002 ensemble look at working-class families, as well as several Ingmar Bergman movies, including “Cries and Whispers” and “Autumn Sonata.” Fellini’s “8 1/2” came into play for discussions about the meticulous camerawork, and Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” was a reference point as another story about ghostly circumstances (if not supernatural ones) that tear a family apart. “I wanted the idea to be that we were making a family drama that sort of warped as it goes along,” he said…“The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.”…After it premiered at the 2011 Slamdance Film Festival, “Johnsons” leaked on to Worldstar Hip Hop, where the family’s racial identity — the story takes place in an upper-class, African-American household — transformed it into a viral phenomenon. Black viewers were torn over the extent to which the movie was an explicit statement on race and class; for every repulsed commenter, there was another who found sharp observations within its provocative themes…The movie didn’t play many other festivals that year, but when it resurfaced at the New York Film Festival, it scored Aster an agent.
Over the next several years, he cranked out as many as 10 feature-length scripts, including one based on “Johnsons,” and nothing came of them. In the meantime, he continued to innovate with his shorts. In 2013’s “Munchausen,” Aster adopts the guise of a wordless Pixar crowdpleaser before plunging the audience into another unnerving portrait of familial dysfunction — in this case, the tale of an overprotective mom so keen on keeping her son from leaving home for college that she poisons him. But “Hereditary” found its way into the system. The movie gelled with DeVito’s anarchic instincts — on some level, it shares some DNA with his 2003 black comedy “Duplex” — and when his company moved on, he passed it to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” producer Anthony Bregman, who handed the rights for the project to Kevin Frakes at PalmStar Media. Frakes found the ideal producing partner in Knudsen, whose old company Parts & Labor produced “The Witch,” another elegant horror effort from a first-time director. “The Witch” also proved hip boutique distributor A24 could handle upscale horror better than anyone, and Knudsen put “Hereditary” on the company’s radar. Then Collette, one of the rare actresses to score an Oscar nomination for a horror movie with “The Sixth Sense,” jumped onboard. “Toni made it real,” Aster said. “It was a rocky road.” Knudsen is keen on shepherding Aster’s vision. “I expect big things from Ari in the future, and I hope to be with him through every step of his career,” he said. The pair have already joined forces on the director’s sophomore effort, the A24-produced thriller “Midsommer,” which revolves around a couple’s vacation in Sweden that goes terribly awry. Aster claimed he has plenty of material to mine. “They’re all passion projects,” he said, but he remained mum on the inspiration. “Filmmaking is so much about catharsis anyway,” he said. “It’s therapeutic.” (indiewire.com) …Since being discovered by A24 for his grippingly demented short films “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” and “Munchausen,” Aster has been given incredible creative freedom…After releasing on July 3 in the summer of 2019, “Midsommar” also had a director’s cut released, clocking in at almost three hours. The movie earned Toni Collette some of the best reviews of her career, and put Aster on the map after it premiered at Sundance in 2018. Aster’s production company Square Peg is also teaming with CJ Entertainment, the company behind Best Picture Academy Award winner “Parasite,” for an English-language remake of “Save the Green Planet!” The 2003 film centers on an an aliens-among-us tale, combining elements of apocalyptic sci-fi. The film is part of a growing lineup of English-language adaptions from CJ Entertainment, which is also at work on film collaborations with Kevin Hart, such as “Extreme Job” and “Bye, Bye, Bye.” Both, like “Save the Green Planet!” are based on prior Korean hits. Announced back in May of this year, “Save the Green Planet!” is currently in pre-production, and it will mark Aster’s first time as a producer. (In the past, he’s served solely as writer and director on his own movies.) (indiewire.com)