‘HEREDITARY’ director and cast craft a terrifying family drama birthed in hell
Preston Barta // Features Editor
Of the three features I saw one sleepy midnight in March at the South by Southwest film festival, A24’s HEREDITARY kept me the most awake — so much so that I didn’t really sleep at all that night.
It’s a slow-burn horror film of the third degree. And it deserves a place in your nightmares (as morbid as that sounds).
Ari Aster makes his feature debut with HEREDITARY, and he enters the horror genre like a seasoned pro. His greatest strengths in storytelling also make his film incredibly difficult to watch. The story Aster spins features Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) at her most raw. She plays Annie Graham (a nod to the word anagram, maybe?), an artist specializing in miniatures who scarcely survived a traumatic childhood. Her father was psychotically depressed, her brother has schizoid personality disorder, and her mother’s darkest secrets set this film in motion.
At the film’s start, Annie’s mother has just died, leaving lots of unanswered questions. The upheaval also leaves the deceased’s dearest granddaughter, young Charlie (Milly Shapiro), with bizarre visions of her deceased grandmother smiling (heebie jeebies on high alert). Charlie, like her mother Annie, is unsatisfied with the space she’s allotted in life. She prefers to sleep in a treehouse in front of her house to her bedroom.
And the peculiarity doesn’t stop there: When a bird flies mysteriously into a window at her school, Charlie finds it outside during playtime and serenely cuts off its head with a pair of scissors like it’s a missing piece for an art project she’s cooking up — undoubtedly the spark that causes HEREDITARY to burn with madness.
“I used to be obsessed with horror films. I’m not so much anymore, but growing up, there were a few films that traumatized me as a kid,” Aster said when discussing what inspired him to conjure up his fiendish horror film. “There was Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY and Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW, and as many Japanese horror films and dramas. But [Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film THE COOK, THE THEIF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER] is a pretty evil movie. That film is filled with images that really bothered me and stayed with me.”
Aster’s film is no different. It’s one of those rare horror films that takes its time to build its characters and immerse you in their world, to the point where you feel as though you also inherited the family’s dilemmas. So when terrible things begin to happen and unsettling images hit the screen, you feel their pain and shout at what may be lurking in the shadows.
“A big part of it was not just what the images are, but the artifice of the filmmaking. There is something upsetting about artifice. [Greenaway] is somebody who uses all these alienating devices, and yet the imagery is very immediate and upsetting, and also it was one of the first films that I’ve ever seen that felt like it was made by an authentic misanthrope, like somebody who really hated people. I know I want to produce that same effect,” Aster joked (but maybe not). “So I was thinking about [Greenaway] a lot when it came to the more upsetting imagery in this film.”
Two sequences in particular stand out as deeply upsetting. One scene uses a key plot point to pivot the trajectory of the story from a troubled brew to a deranged animal on the hunt.
The other involves Annie’s son Peter (a terrific Alex Wolff of MY FRIEND DAHMER) uncontrollably, and violently, slamming his head against his school desk. Once you bear witness to the hard-boiled moment, you may wonder how something could ever feel so bleak.
“We had a desk that was made of rubber, but if it’s repeatedly slamming your head, it hurts a lot. I didn’t anticipate that,” Wolff recalled. “I think it’s fair to say I don’t really like to fake doing anything, ever. I think it’s also fair to say I didn’t fake anything in this movie. So if the scene required me to slam my head against a desk, that’s just what we did to pull off that real feeling.”
For the actors, especially Collette and Shapiro, one cannot imagine the dark places they had to go to tap into the disturbed world Aster creates, and furthermore, how they were able to shake what cannot be unseen. The last 20 minutes alone, when all of what has been bottled up comes screaming out, are unyielding. It’s just one scene straight from the depths of hell to the next.
“Oddly, [the film] didn’t really affect me that much,” the 15-year-old Shapiro said. “I used a method where you can create a character for film or stage [Shapiro is a Tony Award-winning actress of MATILDA THE MUSICAL], but as soon as they say ‘cut,’ you are no longer with the character. It was interesting to see how other people reacted to it.”
Wolff, on the other hand, said he didn’t incorporate any certain method. He was equally terrified if not fully committed to a scene and the material itself.
“There’s no way you can do the things that I do in this movie, go through the things that I go through, without going home and feeling a little sick to your stomach,” Wolff said. “So I’d say I was seriously affected by everything that was going on. I didn’t feel like when they said ‘cut’ things were over. I felt pretty shaken to the core pretty much the entire way through. But now we’re here, so we made it out.”
Hopefully audiences will make it out, too, because if there’s a film more soaked in insanity than HEREDITARY, I have yet to see it. It’s going to be one to simultaneously stew on and try to block out of my mind, especially when I go to turn the lights off at night. So sleep tight.
HEREDITARY opens nationwide on Friday, June 8.