In the short time that I spend with Ari Aster he refers to his debut feature as “a domestic melodrama”, “a Greek tragedy” and “a family drama that curdles into a nightmare”. Hereditary is indeed all these things — that is one of its strengths — but it is also something else: the most harrowing, satisfying and expertly crafted horror movie to hit screens in years. Ever since its first showing at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the film has spawned breathless headlines and sent audiences out of theatres tweeting with trembling fingers to warn others of its scarring effects.
But right now, Aster is going through his own ordeal: an entire day spent locked in a central London hotel room talking to journalists while spring sunshine glints teasingly through the windows. A yellowing push-button landline telephone sits incongruously between us — not in case he needs to call for rescue but for a string of phone interviews yet to come. “I’ve been a bad boy and I’m being punished,” deadpans the jet-lagged New Yorker — and then quickly checks himself. “I’m really regretting saying that,” he winces. “It sounded very perverse and strange.”
It is a comment typical of those of his generation who find themselves suddenly in the spotlight: social media savvy and acutely aware that they are only ever one unguarded comment away from going viral. Yet even at 31 Aster is already no stranger to controversy, and has perhaps even courted it. His 2011 short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons caused a stir — rare for a short film — precisely for being very perverse and strange. If the core story of incest weren’t enough, he threw race into the mix by using an all African-American cast.
In Johnsons it was the relationship between a father and son that took a turn for the bizarre and disturbing; in Hereditary it is all about the mother, which puts it in an impressively creepy lineage: from Psycho to The Exorcist to The Others, mothers are the key ingredient to many a great horror.
Hereditary, in fact, is a veritable field-day for Freudians. It boasts not just one mother (Toni Collette) and her increasingly fractious relationship with her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and two teenage children, but also involves her own recently deceased mother (an occult figure in more ways than one). Why, in horror, does it so often come back to mums?
“The mother is an emblem of security and unconditional love, and so I think our greatest fears revolve around that warping or changing or going away,” Aster says. “I know that the films that scared me the most when I was a kid played with that. Carrie horrified me because of Piper Laurie’s psychotic mother.” (And, of course, these films are almost all made by men.)
Annie, the central mother figure in Hereditary, is a virtuoso study of grief, guilt and angst by Collette that is already exciting awards chatter. She, however, is for the most part not a malevolent matriarch but another horror type: the parent put through several shades of hell. Annie is living proof that just because you’re near-hysterical with stress and grief doesn’t mean there isn’t a dark conspiracy surrounding you.
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For any horror buff, talk of mothers and occult conspiracies naturally brings to mind Rosemary’s Baby. Hereditary comes to cinemas 50 years (spookily, almost to the day) after Roman Polanski’s seminal film, adapted from Ira Levin’s novel, about a pregnant woman who becomes convinced that a cult has diabolical designs on her and her unborn child. Hereditary could almost be a pseudo-sequel, with Annie a matured and hardened update of Mia Farrow’s Rosemary. It even features a kindly/creepy older woman (played by Ann Dowd), who has graduated from the same charm school as Rosemary’s eccentric, doting neighbour, Minnie (played by Oscar-winning Ruth Gordon). But what binds these films is not only similarities in subject matter but also the fact that they spend numerous scenes establishing the inner lives of their characters before plunging them into a spiral of terror.
“Don’t Look Now, Rosemary’s Baby, The Innocents — those were the films that really stayed with me and had a powerful impact on me,” says Aster, who also cites Japanese and South Korean exemplars. “I knew that I wanted to make something that was sort of honouring an older tradition. I wanted to make a film that took its time.”
The result is that — as with all the best horror — the film has depth, complexity and ambiguity, and is profoundly unsettling even if you discount its supernatural elements and read it purely as the portrait of a psyche and a family coming violently apart. Aster, who is already wary of being typecast as a “horror film-maker”, is keen to emphasise its more human, non-genre elements: “It’s a film that is about people suffering and pain and it tries to take the pain of the characters seriously.”
I don’t believe in Heaven. There’s something silly about it, right? But somehow Hell is such a powerful idea that I’m still afraid of it.
As a series of terrible events is visited on Annie and her family, watching them go through the emotional wringer is gruelling enough, but eventually the film’s more supernatural elements do bubble up and impose themselves on the protagonists and audience. Why, I wonder, in our godless times should occult elements still have such a terrorising impact on us?
“Maybe because it is such a godless age,” suggests Aster. “It’s a reminder that we are living in sin.” This applies even to non-Christians. “I’m a Jewish person. I wasn’t raised with Heaven and Hell. I don’t believe in Heaven. There’s something silly about it, right? But somehow Hell is such a powerful idea that I’m still afraid of it.”
On this we agree, and it strikes me that this is an almost comically pessimistic Jewish response to the Christian concept of a dualistic afterlife. Suddenly we are two Jews enacting what could be an old Yiddish joke. “Heaven...? Meh, sounds too good to be true,” I suggest. “But Hell...?” Aster doesn’t miss a beat: “Hell? That’s bad enough to be maybe real.”
It is worth noting that the three most notorious examples of Christian-occult horror were all directed by Jews — Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski), The Exorcist (William Friedkin) and The Omen (Richard Donner). Aster’s name may soon be added to this list. Can this be coincidence? “Maybe we can play with it more freely because it’s not sacrosanct in the same way for us,” Aster muses. “It’s something that we can actually abuse a little bit and then it’s going to affect other people in a different way because they were raised with it.”
However, for the young film-maker himself the motivating force is something more personal: catharsis. “What draws me to the horror genre is I’m very neurotic and hypochondriacal. My imagination immediately goes to the worst-case scenario... so it’s very easy to write material like this,” he says. “Instead of inflicting all this horrible shit on a projection of my future self, I can just invent some characters and do it to them.” A problem shared, it seems, can be a hit movie.
‘Hereditary’ is on release in the US and is released on June 15 in South Africa.
This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.