You know when you’re a kid lying in bed and you think you see a figure in the darkness, but it turns out that silhouette is just a pile of clothes, or a coincidentally placed object? Hereditary captures that fear, and many others, more succinctly than many a film before it
Hereditary centres around Annie Graham (Toni Collette) and her family, most significantly the relationship with her deceased mother and her young daughter, Charlie. Milly Shapiro plays the offspring who ticks off almost every box in the creepy kid checklist. She dissects animals, walks off on her own and makes a nightmare-inducing clicking noise with her mouth. The stoicism with which Shapiro performs is utterly frightening and outstanding from a feature debutant. This is matched by a haunting portrayal of motherhood from Collette and a deeply emotive Alex Wolff who plays Charlie’s sibling, Peter.
Annie has had a traumatic life as she has lost almost everyone she cares deeply about, a fact she confesses reluctantly, and heartbreakingly, in a loss support group. Her day job sees her creating artistic “small worlds” which bring a Wes Anderson level of detail to miniature sets of her own house and other locations in her life. Although not particularly moved by her manipulative mother’s death, she uses her art as a form of catharsis in dealing with her grief.
Themes of manipulation are key to the success of director Ari Aster’s eerie vision. Annie frequently laments the hold her mother had on her granddaughter, and acts as a puppeteer of sorts when creating her own landscapes. As events led her to become increasingly unhinged, this control over her art is the only thing that grounds her, even when she starts recreating disturbing incidents from her own life in her pieces.
“The stoicism with which Shapiro performs is utterly frightening and outstanding from a feature debutant. This is matched by a haunting portrayal of motherhood from Collette and a deeply emotive Alex Wolff who plays Charlie’s sibling, Peter.”
Aster uses clever camera movements to suggest the Graham family is also living in some kind of ethereal-dollhouse with a non-descript being watching over her. The camera trickery doesn’t stop here: Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski play around with lighting and shadows brilliantly, with some of the biggest scares coming from deft, yet horrifying, visual effects.
When confronting her losses, Annie becomes increasingly involved in the occult, courtesy of overly-friendly Joan (Ann Dowd) who offers her support and otherworldly knowledge. Despite cynicism from herself and husband Steve (a sympathetic Gabriel Byrne), Annie gains an increasing belief in spiritualism and all kinds of spooky things.
This is where the pace is cranked up after a slow, tense beginning which is helped by a thudding and scratchy Colin Stetson score and, at times, unbearably slow camera movements. The tension does trail off occasionally, with the momentum sometimes haltering like a dodgy gear change. However, you’re brought back in by a tight script which is constantly dropping hints and little details which help to build Aster’s overall vision which has clearly been thought out to every
A quote uttered in a classroom early on in the film has a particular resonance in Hereditary: “we’re pawns in a horrible, hopeless machine”. It’s rare a character seems to have complete control over their actions, making them seem utterly powerless in a tale that becomes increasingly more about what we can’t see than what we can. Whether it’s the invisible bonds that tie families together, or the omnipotent sprits that surround us: Hereditary offers a chilling reminder of how fragile life is.
We caught up with the creator of this year’s most disturbing horror film, Hereditary. Ari Aster impresses in his first feature film, but evidence of his incredible directorial eye is everywhere in his previous short films. Along with these shorts we discussed believing in ghosts, the importance of subversion and researching the occult
Tom WILLIAMS: Do you believe in ghosts?
Ari ASTER: I’m not particularly superstitious, but I am very susceptible to paranoia. I’ve slept in places that people have called haunted and felt all weird. I’ll hear a sound and my imagination won’t stop running.
That makes a lot of sense. In Hereditary, and indeed a lot of your shorts, you seem to find something sinister in typically commonplace moments. Is subverting the ordinary a key part of your ethos as a director?
I like transgression and subversion. I think a big part of it is subverting the ordinary and also subverting tropes and conventions. My shorts, even more than this film, are movie movies. They are referential in certain ways and there playing with conventions and the ways things are depicted in films.
The Strange Thing About The Johnsons (2011) is playing with the domestic melodrama in an absurd and grotesque way. The short, Munchausen (2013)is taking the idealised vision of the suburban household and finding what’s insidious about that. Hereditary is a much less referential film and feels more grounded in reality, but it is also aims to unabashedly be a horror movie and I hope it’s a very good one.
Is subversion a key part of the horror genre?
There is a complacency that comes with watching a genre film for most audiences, people come in with their expectations and knowing what the formulas are and what the devices are. There’s a joy to be had in setting up things conventionally, as a filmmaker, and then finding ways to upend them. Hopefully in ways that shock an otherwise passive audience into engaging in a different way. That’s what I look for as a viewer, I’m looking for that moment in a film where I realise the experience is no longer in my control.
You capture this well in your visual style. It’s bathed in familiarity, but also manages to be eerie and surreal. In Hereditary, the main set resembles a doll house: something that only resembles the real. Is the uncanny something that fascinates you, or indeed scares you?
I was certainly chasing the uncanny in this film and it was something discussed in pre-production. We built the entire house on a stage so we could shoot it in a certain way – the dollhouse aesthetic. It was important to me that the house began as a home, even if it was a complicated home and then become increasingly un-home like. I agree with you, I think the aim is to ground you with easily recognisable emotions, but then it gradually spirals out of control and adapts a nightmare logic and becomes unhinged. In that way, it owes a large debt to the domestic melodrama. It hopes to honour all the unpleasant extreme emotions of the characters by being as big and extreme as those feelings.
You like to play with the peripherals of the frame a lot, hiding things in plain sight and so on. Is this important to you?
Yeah, I love films that play with multiple planes in the same frame. Which is why I love Jacques Tati and Roy Andersson. Like I was saying earlier, you don’t want a complacent viewer, you want to encourage engagement and this is a great tool in doing that.
As a sketch artist, how many of the drawings that appear in the film were yours?
A lot of them are me. We had an artist in Utah, Sam, who did Charlie’s toys. Then later on, I did some of my own: Charlie’s drawings were probably half Sam and half me. The drawing of Paimon towards the end was mine.
How much research did you have to into the occult side of the movie?
It’s nothing I’ve ever been interested in: I find it very disturbing. But I did do a lot of research for the film and it did unnerve me. I did the research whilst I was writing the script and then when I was directing I told everyone else to do their own research [Laughs] because I was done.
You don’t particularly like to refer to yourself as a horror director: is there a particular reason for this?
I love the genre, and I really enjoyed making this film and my next film will be a horror film. But I just consider myself a genre director and I intend to branch out.
Where would you want to branch out?
Comedy, dark comedy. I’d love to make a musical and a western. I love genre.
From Charlie’s character I got big Don’t Look Now vibes: was the film important to Hereditary?
It is the biggest inspiration for this film. I consider Hereditary a spiritual sequel to Don’t Look Now (1973). I love Nicolas Roeg and Charlie and her orange sweatshirt. If it evokes memories of the girl in the red raincoat that’s not purely accidental. It’s a great film. As is yours!
What to stream this month:
Planet Earth II (Netflix)
The second instalment of the much-revered nature documentary to end all nature documentaries. With even more mind-blowing shots and information, this is definitely one to watch on a Sunday afternoon (if you haven’t already).
Sausage Party (Netflix)
A typical Seth Rogan written joint which subverts typical Disney characteristics whilst remaining loyal to his stoner-comedy roots.
The Shallows (Netflix)
A great genre film from a few years back sees Blake Lively struggle in the water amidst a shark attack: short, tense and superb.
Space Jam (Amazon)
A great dose of 90s nostalgia comes in the form of this part-animated, part-live action, sports movie. It really does have everything.
The Age of Innocence (Amazon)
One of Scorsese’s lesser praised masterworks which warrants a viewing with two incredible performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Words by Tom Williams
Image Credits by Courtesy of Entertainment Film Distributors