Deemed by many critics as The Exorcist of this generation, the deeply unsettling film Hereditary is easily the scariest film of the year (and perhaps one of the scariest of all time). Unpacking the extremely layered horror movie is an experience in itself, but at the Los Angeles press junket for the film in May, writer/director Ari Aster explains why, exactly, Hereditary induces such sheer terror in its viewers.
The film "preys on peoples’ most irremediable fears," says Aster. "Like dying alone, the fact that we don’t really know people, even people that are closest to us... [or] what happens to us when we die."
Indeed, Hereditary proves that there are certain things (namely the reality rooted in these fears) that no human can control or avoid, and that's what's truly terrifying. In the film, out June 8, Toni Collette stars as a woman whose life and family unravel into horror when her mother, who led a very private life, passes away. The funeral leads to family secrets being revealed, with one horrifying event unfolding after the next. And whether you believe in an afterlife or not, Hereditary validates the fear that death only leads to a living hell for those who are left.
If Hereditary's themes and plot seem unimaginably scary, try being one of its actors; at the movie's press day, Collette jokes that she was looking for anything other than an intense horror film when she signed on, due to the other heavy projects she'd done in the past. But despite its horrors, she couldn't resist working on the movie. "It was so obviously brilliant and original — it has this heaviness and is about family dynamic, how each of them are dealing with grief in very different ways and it's very, very difficult," Collette says. "There’s just so much weight to it and it feels like a family drama that actually turns into this very scary reality, and it’s not gratuitous."
Aesthetically, Hereditary is unlike most mainstream horror films. The disturbing and often unexpected imagery is almost impossible to shake off, and the suspenseful camera movement, unpredictable events, eerie sounds, and slow buildup will have your palms sweating for the entire two hours. While the movie does includes some classic tropes of demonic-infused horror films, it's the level of character investment that makes the experience so deeply psychological and unique.
"There’s a general hopelessness and dread that’s validated in the end. Those feelings were rooted in something," explains Aster. Like The Exorcist, Hereditary establishes characters that viewers can't help but become attached to and perhaps identify with. "The movie prioritizes character and takes its time," the director adds. "Everything that is happening that is potentially scary is happening to people that you are invested in."
Collette, who's pretty much the queen of family-themed horror films (The Sixth Sense and Krampus, for example), is proud that Hereditary is part of a recent surge in high-quality horror films; movies like Get Out and A Quiet Place have won similar acclaim for their deep messages and smart execution. "These films say something quite profound... [they] have an actual vision and something to say," says Collette. "If you try to please too many people at once, it neutralizes and waters down everything... there’s nothing to grasp onto, there’s nothing real there."
Aster adds he's always had appreciation for films that "insinuate themselves into your consciousness," which Hereditary certainly achieves. The film unapologetically goes there, and that makes it as horrifying as it is refreshing. "It’s really not afraid. It’s not towing any line," Collette says of her movie. "To have a piece of work that is so exciting, it’s really rare. I can’t think of working on something for a long time where there is such an energy around it."
As terrified as viewers may be when watching Hereditary, they can also take comfort in that fact that they're experiencing a movie that people will be talking about (and horrified by) for a long, long time.