The buzz out of Sundance came fast and ferocious. Critics were championing writer-director Ari Aster's first feature film, Hereditary, as masterful and harrowing horror. So, of course, SYFY FANGRRLS couldn't wait to sink our teeth into its SXSW Conference debut. And be assured — Hereditary lives up to the hype. This reporter not only screamed and shivered, she stayed up for hours after, too spooked to turn off the lights and fall asleep.
We did manage to snag a few fitful hours before rising to meet Aster and his stars, Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro, to discuss the art-house horror film that's got critics raving, audiences screaming, and me still losing sleep. Seriously.
Light spoilers for Hereditary lie ahead.
Warning: To preserve the full experience of Hereditary and its scares, don't go seeking out its major spoilers elsewhere.
Academy Award nominee Toni Collette stars as Annie Graham, an artist struggling to cope when her mean-spirited mother passes away. This death has Annie questioning her relationship with her own children, teen stoner Peter (Wolff) and tween weirdo Charlie (Shapiro). But despite the best efforts of her patient husband (Gabriel Bryne), these bonds go from binding to suffocating when strange events suggest they may not be rid of Grandma after all.
Asked from where the concept for Hereditary came, Aster told us, "I would say the seed would be that my family and I went through a few very rough years, and it got bad enough that the prevailing feeling was that we were cursed. From there, I just sort of decided to literalize that idea, and make a film about a family being cursed."
Addressing a common misconception that came out of Sundance, Aster clarified, "The film grew out of a personal place. The film is not in any way autobiographical. Nobody in the family is a surrogate for anybody in my own family."
"I think it was personal for all of us to a certain degree," Wolff added. "Or at least it was for me." He described Hereditary as a hyperbole of the fear that a family's issues are inescapable. "That's what I loved about the script," Wolff said. "To me, it was like a family story wrought with drama that smokes crack halfway through, and takes all that emotional turmoil between everybody and turns it and makes it visceral and makes it real."
For her part, Shapiro added, "[Hereditary] connects to a lot of people in a way that a lot of horror movies don't. People feel like they can relate to it in some weird way, because of all the family relationships that are going on in the film. I think that it's just really amazing to see."
"No matter what's going on in this family," Wolff continued, "I think that everybody has felt—or most families have felt—this feeling of 'We're cursed, and this is an emotional nightmare. This is a nightmare.' The movie turned into a literal nightmare, but it's in the context of it being an emotional nightmare. I think it is personal in that way for everybody."
"Hopefully it is universal," Aster said. "I feel that the best way to tap into anything universal is through the specific."
Speaking specifics, one of the most terrifying techniques that Aster deals out in Hereditary is its slow-burn pace. He lingers on some shots for so long the audience can feel trapped in their space, or might notice something unsettling in the corner of the frame. "That was all part of the design," Aster said. "The goal was always to create and sustain a slow burn. For me, the most important thing here was to cater to the family drama first. To have all the horror elements stem from that toxic family dynamic, as opposed to creating a family dynamic that serves as a device for the horror that I need to get to. I wanted to have the horror always be something growing out of what we've established in the first hour, really."
So is Hereditary a family drama or a horror movie? "I see the film as a family drama that curdles into a nightmare," Aster said. "Calling something a horror film is so blanket."
But don't get it twisted: Aster loves horror movies, and has since his adolescence. "When I was 13 years old, I was obsessed with horror films," he said. "I even had like a binder that I filled with badly copied images from the internet, of like Pinhead and Basket Case. As a kid, I would just compulsively draw violent images, and my parents were called in to the principal's office because they were disturbed. In some ways, this is something that I've been working towards since I was very, very young."
Things have come full circle. Aster has made a sensational horror movie, and now he's seeing it win praise out of one festival after another ahead of its theatrical release this summer. "It's been invigorating," he said of watching Hereditary with an audience. "I mean, you get so lost in the making of a film and you get so fixed on just like every tiny detail. If something doesn't hit the bullseye in the way you wanted, you become obsessed with that, and you get so just lost in that maze of neurotic thinking. Premiering it at Sundance and playing it last night here at SXSW, and just seeing the way people have been reacting to the film? It has been just really humbling, but beyond exciting."
Hereditary made its Texas premiere at SXSW. The film is now playing in theaters.