By Liam Lacey
A breakout hit at last year’s Sundance Festival, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is certainly not the first horror movie about the psychology of grief and the intersection of mourning, madness and the supernatural.
But the 31-year-old Aster’s bold portrayal of a family’s mental illness, mixed with a demonic possession plot, has resonated with critics and fans welcoming a grown-up horror story.
Hereditary follows the superficially happy Graham family — dollhouse artist mother (Toni Collette), passive dad (Gabriel Byrne), eccentric adolescent daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and stoner son (Alex Wolff), in the aftermath of a devastating family tragedy that prompts the mother to seek supernatural answers.
Aster says that, from the time he first pitched the movie, he emphasized that it was a family tragedy, not a horror thriller: “It’s a tragedy that curdles into a nightmare in the same way that life can feel like a nightmare when disaster strikes.”
One might be tempted to speculate that some of Aster’s instincts have their own hereditary origins. Raised in New Mexico, Aster is the son of a jazz-drummer father (rhythm, timing) and a poet mother, Bobbi Lurie (a featured guest on Garrison Keillor’s daily radio show The Writers Alamanac), whose works explore dark places (her mother’s dementia and her own cancer treatment).
Probably more importantly, Aster was exposed to serious art films from a young age. Ari - who earned a Masters of Fine Arts at the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles - made a splash seven years ago with his short film, TThe Strange Thing About the Johnsons. The film was a provocation, presented like a Douglas Sirk melodrama, about an African-American man sexually abused by his own son. His follow-up Munchausen (2013) was a wordless black comedy about a mother who makes her son sick because she can’t face him going to college.
While parental failing and macabre humour may be his forte, they don’t even scratch the surface of his enthusiasms. In person, he brings to mind a young Paul Thomas Anderson, a friendly introvert, whose mind teems like a tadpole pool full of movie references.
“I obviously like talking about other filmmakers,” he agrees. “I consider myself really just like a cinephile. I love movies so much that I just want to keep making them so I can have a dialogue with other movies in a way.”
The names of his cinematic heroes spill out in conversation: Federico Fellini, early Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Jack Clayton (the 1961 Henry James’ adaptation, The Innocents). The Davids (Cronenberg and Lynch), Kenneth Lonergan, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke. Japanese classics Ugetsu, Kwaidan and Empire of Passion. Contemporary favourites include South Korean directors Na Hong-Jin (The Wailing), Jang Joon-Hwan (Save the Green Planet!), Lee Chang-Dong (Secret Sunshine).
Special mention goes to Nicholas Roeg for his tone and the way he’s “very brutal with the image in a way that's really exciting to me.” And Roman Polanski (“I mean everything really from Repulsion through to Chinatown. All those films are just really staggering from, like, a directorial perspective.”); And - his favourite living director - Mike Leigh, for the vivid depiction of “characters and relationships."
In the context of Hereditary, he also mentions Peter Greenaway “who is not a filmmaker that I like, but he is a filmmaker I admire. I think that his films feel evil in a way that I actually do not enjoy. Like I think he's a kind authentic misanthrope. The Cook, the Thief [His Wife and Her Lover] really did a number on me as a kid. And, you know, it's just a film that feels evil to me - which is funny because with Hereditary I was telling the crew I wanted it to feel evil and I was thinking about that movie when I said that.”
If this suggests that Aster’s brain has been pickled since infancy in film brine, that’s also too limiting. In the interview, I mention I felt I recognized a tone in Hereditary, the way characters attempt to behave in conventional ways in grotesque circumstances which seemed reminiscent of playwright Edward Albee. Aster immediately responded that Albee was “someone who I love and who I guess I was thinking a lot about.” A minute later, he ties Albee to an entire American theatre tradition of destroyed family stage dramas — Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
“They all worked in a nightmarish register — which is something you don’t hear much but it’s true.”
Aster has a lot of ideas, including several un-filmed non-horror scripts in his desk. All this raises the question: Given his range and enthusiasm for a wide range of drama, why did he choose to make his debut film for the niche horror audience?
Because it’s low-budget, formulaic and often crudely executed, says Aster, horror is “guilty until proven innocent.”
“I think I love the genre because people come with certain expectations. They know the tropes and the conventions. There’s something exciting about establishing the familiar and then up-ending that. What happens 30 minutes into this film is designed to serve like a chute that opens up under the audience and drops them into something else and hopefully shocks them out of that complacency.
“How do you satisfy the demands while also at the same time, completely rejecting them and making the audience come with you on your terms?”