Most standard horror fare relies on the presence of some make-believe being—a bloody, chainsaw-wielding ghoul or murderous extraterrestrial with an appetite for human flesh, for example—to instill terror in both its on-screen victims and its audiences. But Ari Aster, writer and director of the highly anticipated Hereditary, knows that the most petrifying flicks take aim at the primal: the familiar, deep-rooted fears that eat away slowly, assiduously at our psyches—the kinds of unspeakable frights that can’t be cushioned with a comforting “Well, none of this is real” air because the circumstances, in some weird, twisted manner, hit a little too close to home.
“It is a film that is about grief and trauma,” Aster says of his feature-length debut, on the line from Toronto, “and I see it as being a sort of existential horror film that’s preying on what I imagine are universal fears, like the fear of death, the fear of somebody you love dying, and the fear of being responsible for harming someone you love and being blamed for that.”
While it certainly deals with familial ties, Hereditary, opening Friday (June 8), doesn’t shy away from conventional scary-movie motifs. After the death of 78-year-old Ellen Taper Leigh, her artist daughter, Annie (Toni Colette), begins seeing strange apparitions in their mountainside, seemingly situated-in-the-middle-of-nowhere abode. Annie’s teenage kids, soft-spoken stoner Peter (Alex Wolff) and the unnervingly creepy Charlie (Milly Shapiro), have a few off experiences of their own that suggest that Grandma may not be all gone. But it’s what happens next—in a devastating and almost unbearably disturbing act that Annie later depicts in one of her miniature dioramas—that really sends the clan spiralling.
“That scene is designed to basically operate as a chute that opens up underneath the audience and drops them to hell,” explains Aster. “And the hope is that people walk into it complacently, thinking that they know, more or less, where the movie might be going because they’ve seen films of its kind. And, hopefully, that scene jolts them into engaging in a deeper way.”
Horrorheads will undoubtedly see notes of genre classics throughout Hereditary—early reviews of the Sundance favourite have compared it to everything from The Babadook to The Exorcist—though, with its supernatural and sorrow-stricken turns, it’s not a stretch to say that the production stands on its own. In fact, Aster fancies the picture a family drama more than a horror flick. “I feel like the film is kind of working in a tradition that’s not far from Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, and Jack Clayton’s Innocents, which is an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, so there’s some Henry James in there,” he notes. “But, ultimately, it’s playing with tropes and conventions, and is aiming to upend them in compelling ways and ways that still feel true to the story it’s telling.”
If anything, crafting the feature served as a cathartic exercise in confronting Aster’s darkest, most intrinsic phobias. “I’m a hypochondriac; I’m afraid of death; I have abandonment fears,” he admits. “Maybe not more than your average person, but I feel like these are things we spend our entire lives wrestling with and either coming to terms with or not.”