Ari Aster knows what scares you.
Growing up in New York, he was a horror movie obsessive, watching VHS tapes of any video nasty he could lay his hands on.
His appreciation for the genre soon evolved into work as a filmmaker and writer, with Aster earning praise for his often-controversial shorts.
Aster’s first feature-length effort, Hereditary, just debuted to similar acclaim, with the film proving striking, divisive and thought-provoking in the extreme.
Hereditary centres on Toni Collette’s Annie and her family as their lives gradually begin to unravel amid tragic and disturbing occurrences that soon begin to reveal dark secrets within.
To mark the film’s release, loaded spoke to Aster about the film’s origins, his favourite scary movies and whether he has any plans for a sequel.
loaded: Where did this demented idea for a movie come from?
Ari: I started by asking myself what I would want from a movie like that. I wanted to make something existential, where the fear was rooted in something no one can truly remedy. Like the fear of death. What do you do with that? You either come to terms with it or you don’t. Or the fear of abandonment or the idea that we don’t really know the people closest to us. The story grew out of those questions.
I wanted to make a film about grief and trauma and one that served as a serious meditation on those things. One that took the characters’ pain and suffering seriously. In that way, I feel like the film almost owes this greater debt to the domestic melodrama than it does the horror genre. It aims to honour the extreme emotions the characters are going through by ultimately being as big as them. In that way, it’s very expressionistic.
loaded: Is this inspired by any real-life experience? Have you lost a relative recently?
Ari: It wasn’t inspired so much by a real experience. None of the inspirations were that literal but then that’s the beauty of the horror genre. You can take something personal and push it through a filter and out comes an invention that allows you to wrestle with feelings without having to put yourself in the spotlight.
loaded: Would you describe this as a supernatural or psychological horror film?
Ari: Why not both? I intentionally tried to create a certain ambiguity between the two before audiences finally discover what’s happening. At the same time, the idea was always to make a film that served as a family tragedy that gradually warps into a nightmare. So, even as things are revealed, the film does take on this nightmare logic and shoots off into the stratosphere.
loaded: Do you believe in ghosts?
Ari: I don’t necessarily believe in the supernatural, but I am susceptible to those fears in certain situations. Like one where you might be staying overnight in some space that has been deemed ‘haunted’. It’s funny how paranoia about that stuff can develop so easily. But I enjoyed the challenge of taking things that are typically tropes in the genre and seeing how visceral I can make them.
loaded: Hereditary doesn’t shy away from gore. Is that as an important element of a good horror film?
Ari: Yes, but there is a line and you kind of need to develop a sense of knowing when to cross it and when not to. Because I’ve seen horror movies that I think are totally gratuitous and filled with cruelty. They can be sadistic and I find them unpleasant and a bit depressing. But there are horror films out there that know exactly when to cross the line and they can be powerful and shocking. But it’s just a matter of taste and the filmmaker’s instincts. Determining when to push things to that next level. I’m sure there will be people who see Hereditary and probably think I’ve gone too far with certain stuff, but there will be others who probably think I could have taken things further.
loaded: How important was it to get this cast of actors together?
Ari: Incredibly important. This film leans so heavily on its performances so I feel fortunate to have had the cast that I did on this film and to have actors of the caliber of Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, and Ann Dowd, but then I also felt fortunate to find Mily Shapiro and Alex Woolf as the two kids. They give stunning performances. I’m so proud of what they had done.
loaded: Do you want audiences to be disturbed by Hereditary?
Ari: I want the film to haunt people. I want it to linger and stay with them. I don’t want it to be depressing though. I understand the film is about despair and grief and pain.
But I can watch a film about those things and that attaches itself sympathetically to the people that are suffering these things in the context of the film and if it’s made with a certain amount of ingenuity and passion then I can still walk out feeling energised and excited. The films I respond to the most are the ones that are ecstatically made. Whether they are dark or ebullient. What makes me happy is to see a film that is made with that passion. I hope Hereditary is exciting in that way.
loaded: What kind of horror movies scare you?
Ari: Growing up, two films really bothered me. Brian De Palma’s Carrie really frightened me. There were images in that film that still haunt me now. That really affected me very deeply as a kid aged 12 or 13. It took me years to shake that fear off. I saw it again recently and was surprised to discover it’s a deeply campy but also deeply sad horror comedy. But again, it’s deeply sorrowful.
Another one that scared me as a kid was Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It’s not technically a horror film but it is deeply disturbing and very misanthropic. That film was statically made but it’s filled with malice and made with an anger and disgust that you kind of feel as you watch it. It shows some of the worst traits of humanity. Those are two that really bothered me. They are made by two auteurs who were very much devoted to artifice.
I’m also a big fan of Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now. They are very much products of their time and grounded in their characters.
loaded: Could you ever see there being a Hereditary 2?
Ari: I do have an idea for a sequel that’s pretty unconventional and strange. I wonder if anyone would let me do it though. If they did, then I would definitely consider making a Hereditary 2. But I can’t tell you any more than that. I would be interested though.
Hereditary is in cinemas now.
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.