The comfort of horror (films): we talk to Ari Aster

Ari Aster’s debut feature, Hereditary, has been hailed as a future horror classic. Stephen Applebaum meets a self-proclaimed neurotic hypochondriac


Ari Aster’s film Hereditary arrives in the UK this week on a wave of critical adulation, the scale of which few film-makers will ever experience. What makes it so astonishing is that Aster, 31, is just beginning his career.

When Hereditary bowed in the Midnight section of the Sundance Film Festival in January, its distressing mix of intense family drama and gruesome supernatural horror left critics feeling disturbed and shaken. It was “this generation’s The Exorcist”, proclaimed one (a little hyperbolically, to be fair), and the most frightening film in years, chimed many.

Tellingly, the buzz hadn’t died down by June 8, the day Hereditary opened in the United States, when it was still rated 98% fresh on film review site Rotten Tomatoes and 86% positive (“Universal acclaim”) on Metacritic.

While Aster is not quite reeling from the effects of the praise heaped upon the movie, and on him personally (he’s been fêted as a major new voice in cinema), when we talk during his visit to the Sundance festival spin-off in London, the New-York born writer-director admits that it has been “a little overwhelming”.

“You know, one minute I’ll be very excited by the reactions and then the next I’ll have a lot of anxiety about it. It’s been a whirlwind.”

When filming starts, after the summer, on his second feature, tentatively titled Midsommer, he’ll be carrying a sackful of expectation on his back. He is trying to “ignore the pressure, because it doesn’t make for a better film to acknowledge it, necessarily,” he says.

“But of course there is a different pressure on the next one, and it would be disingenuous to say otherwise.”

Right now, though, the question is whether the public will embrace Hereditary the way the critics have done. It is a dark, bleak, uncomfortable, slow-burning movie, which Aster tried to make in a way that “bothered people on a very deep level”.

So far he has succeeded. However, this isn’t the first time that his work has provoked a strong reaction.

Last year, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, a 2011 30-minute short Aster made as his thesis film at the American Film Institute, went viral as people started filming themselves reacting to its taboo-busting tale of a black middle-class family who presents itself as a model of respectability, but behind closed doors is tainted by incest and sexual abuse involving the father and son, where the latter has the upper hand.

Darkness also shaded the homely setting of Aster’s deceptively sunny, Pixar-inspired short Munchausen (2013), in which a doting mother’s refusal to cut her college-bound son’s apron strings has tragic consequences.

This poisoning of the domestic space now reaches hysterical and grisly heights in Hereditary, where the death of a family’s mysterious matriarch casts a long and deadly shadow over her artist-daughter Annie (Toni Colette), son-in-law Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and grandchildren Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who have all been bequeathed an infernal inheritance.

Families should be a place of refuge, with relationships that provide safety and security. In Aster’s world, the ties that bind become perverse, even lethal.

“The family is great fodder for drama . . . and I feel like it’s a no-brainer for an artist who is looking to cut deep,” he says.

“Because as far as relationships go, there’s nothing more insidious or elemental than our relationship to our children or our parents, the people we’re closest to. A betrayal in a family is much more devastating than a betrayal among friends, or even lovers.”

He says that growing up he was “really fascinated” by Sigmund Freud, and cites Freud’s essay on the uncanny, about how familiar things people, places, objects, the home can suddenly come to appear strange, as an influence on Hereditary (“In a lot of ways I see this as having really deeply Freudian roots”).

Another influence was his own family’s experience of grief and misfortune. In the film’s press notes he alludes to a period when things got “so relentlessly awful that the feeling prevailed that we basically must be cursed”. He tells me he was in his early 20s at the time, but is reluctant to share more.

“I’m deliberately evading details,” he says. “But I can say yeah, my family and I went through a very hard time together. I think it was harder for other members of my family, certainly, than it was for me. They went through things more directly affecting them, and I would be affected by seeing people I love in pain.”

While the feelings from this experience, channelled through a “horror movie filter”, informed the writing of Hereditary, he stresses that the characters are not surrogates for his relatives. To “dispel certain ideas that people might have”, Aster tells me that he comes from “a really wonderful and supportive family”.

His father is a R&B-turned-jazz drummer; his mother, Bobbie Lurie, a visual artist-turned-poet. They would both take him to the cinema growing up, but it was his mother’s taste that most appealed to him.

Aster lists such provocative titles as Michael Haneke’s psycho-sexual thriller The Piano Teacher, Lars von Trier’s disturbing Dogville and Roy Andersson’s pitch-black comedy Songs from the Seventh Floor, as “films that we both loved and that made a big impact on both of us.

“One reason I think I am able to work with such dark material,” he muses, “is the fact I was never really discouraged from making this kind of work.”

Aster was brought up Jewish, and although he isn’t religious, “Jewishness is a very big part of my identity.

“I am a proud Jew, I would say, who doesn’t practice very actively.”

Although there is nothing obviously Jewish about Hereditary, I suggest to him that the way the family space in the film becomes increasingly, in his words, “un-homelike”, and the relationships more hostile, could almost be touching, in a metaphorical way, on Jewish post-Holocaust anxieties about the possibility of society suddenly rounding on Jews, and the feeling, as another Jewish film-maker once put it to me, that “the idea you can build a comfortable home in a country is tenuous at best.” So does he see any connection to his Jewish roots, I ask?

“Maybe, yeah. You make a very good point, and what you just said touched a chord,” says Aster.

“I’m not sure I can speak very eloquently to the film’s ties to the Holocaust, so I’ll avoid it. But I do have a very pessimistic outlook.

“I’m a very neurotic person, I’m hypochondriacal, and my imagination goes immediately to the worst-case scenario.

“So it’s quite easy to write dark material for me, and sometimes it’s a relief to inflict my fears on imaginary characters instead of projecting into the future and inflicting them on this future image of myself.

“But I think a lot of it does come from a pessimism about the world and an understanding of how cruel people can be to each other.”

Thus whilst he frighteningly evokes the occult in Hereditary, this isn’t what scares Aster. Rather, it is the “Machiavellian, conniving aspects of the story”, “the idea of the seemingly benevolent friend who shows up in your life that in fact does not have your best interests at heart”, that he finds terrifying.

He is talking as someone whose journey making his debut feature began with cathartically investigating his fears.

“If the film finds its way deep into the audience’s psyches, it is because Aster has drilled down into his own first, and pulled out existential terrors that strike on a primal level.

“I found that the things I am afraid of most are things for which there are no obvious remedies. Like what do you do with a fear of death? You either come to terms with it or you don’t, but there’s no solving it.

“What do you do if you’re afraid of abandonment? There’s no guarantee with any relationship. Well, there’s one: That it will, one way or another, be cut down, if not by betrayal or just two people growing apart, then by death.

“And what do you do about the fear that you can never really know anybody in a particular sense?”

All of this pondering led to an attempt “to make a serious film about suffering”.

“For him, it was “therapeutic”. For us, the result is a harrowing, waking nightmare, whose upsetting effect lasts long after the theatre lights have gone up.

“There are a lot of films that go for the bitter-sweet ending, and are talking about suffering and getting over suffering, and they end on a note of hope, and there are a lot of people in the world for whom that feels false,” suggests Aster.

“If one is suffering, it can be much more comforting to watch a film that doesn’t whitewash that and that looks pain directly in the eye, and doesn’t try to answer for it or find a greater meaning in it beyond that life can be suffering.”

Hereditary is that movie. Watch it if you dare.


Hereditary opens Friday 15 June

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