A24’s “Hereditary,” which opened over the weekend to better-than-expected box office grosses, has been hailed by critics as the scariest film of the year. After wowing film festival crowds since its January debut at Sundance, the feature debut of writer-director Ari Aster has officially burned its tale of deep-rooted familial traumas — along with some impeccably unnerving expressions from Toni Collette — into the psyches of its biggest fans.
But even Aster forgot, at times, that he was making a horror movie. (Warning: Spoilers for “Hereditary” follow.)
“You get so lost in the minutiae of executing something that I forgot that I had made a genre film,” said Aster, who preceded “Hereditary” with the similarly subversive family-themed shorts “Munchausen” and “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.”
At Sundance, he watched the first of many “Hereditary” audiences squirm in their seats at the nightmare unfolding onscreen. “The audience reaction was palpable and it was clear,” he smiled. “This is a horror film.”
Each frame of the film was meticulously planned out by Aster, who spent six months shot-listing every single shot of the film’s 156 scenes before spending another three weeks refining it all again with his director of photography, Pawel Pogorzelski, and production designer Grace Yun (“Beach Rats,” “First Reformed”).
His crew built the entire Graham family house on a soundstage in Utah, including the sprawling home’s first floor, second floor, that creepy attic, and two versions of Charlie’s treehouse, constructing what amounted to a life-sized dollhouse set for the actors.
“You make [‘Hereditary’] as a straight drama and it’s just bleak and punishing and like three people end up in the audience,” laughed Aster. “You make it as a horror film and you have to meet certain demands, there’s a certain level of catharsis that you need to find, and finding that catharsis becomes a cathartic process. That’s therapeutic.”
The car scene
“Hereditary”’s first horrific twist lands with a shock in the first 30 minutes. The Graham family’s teenage stoner son Peter (Alex Wolff) is speeding down a darkened highway toward the hospital to get help for his little sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Moments earlier at the party their mother Annie made the siblings attend together, the girl unwittingly ate a piece of cake with nuts. Now she’s gasping for air in the backseat, wheezing for breath in anaphylactic shock.
The scene reaches its tragic climax when Charlie, hanging halfway out of the car window, is decapitated as Peter swerves off the road to avoid an animal. The camera lingers on Peter's face as he wrestles with the horrible truth of the moment before slowly driving away, leaving his sister’s head on the side of the road.
“It’s cool the way [Aster] takes people seriously enough and trusts humans to empathize with that and understand that,” said Wolff of Peter’s choices in the immediate aftermath of Charlie’s death. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why didn’t he do [this or that]?’ Well, because he didn’t. He’s 17. And the horrible truth is that it’s a weight off his back. There’s all this stuff at play.”
Wolff had spent the entire production in character, priming himself for the film’s demanding scenes by listening to music by avant-garde musician and “Hereditary” composer Colin Stetson. Everything in the scene relies on his reaction, the camera zeroing in on Wolff’s anguished face as the film follows him home, through a sleepless night, awaiting the inevitable discovery of what he’s done.
“[The crew] clapped at the end of that day, and I remember feeling like, ‘OK, this doesn’t happen super often.’ That was really nice. Maybe that was the most memorable moment: ‘OK, I’m doing this for a reason. This is going to turn out to be something special.’”
Self-described horror fan Shapiro said “Hereditary” maintains a sense of realism on a human scale that’s often lacking in the genre.
“If you think about it, that could happen to anyone. That’s what makes it so scary,” she said of Charlie’s final ride.
The other car scene
Arguably the most startling moment in “Hereditary” is also its most simple: the sound of Charlie’s signature tongue click.
Credit Aster’s sense for timing in a film that has lulled you into vulnerability by not relying on traditional horror movie jump scares. Annie (Collette) is driving home in her car, shaken after witnessing the impossible during a seance at her new friend Joan’s apartment, when the sharp, simple sound — the sound of her dead daughter — shatters the silence and sends her reeling.
Charlie’s clicking sound was written into Aster’s script. “I thought it was such a brilliant way of getting it across,” said Shapiro. “This was something that was so subtle but so disturbing, and it could actually be a tic that someone might have.”
The click, cranked up to jump-out-of-your-seat levels with some canny sound design, pushes Annie over the edge — nudging her past the point of skepticism into believing in the spirit world, and toward her own dark fate — and scares unsuspecting audience members out of their seats.
“That was the biggest surprise to me because that gets the biggest scream in every screening,” said Aster. “As with comedy, if it’s working, you know. It’s verifiable. With horror, people are either jumping or in the case of this film, there’s a tension in the audience that you feel.”
Even Collette got spooked watching the moment onscreen: “I knew what was happening and I still jumped!”
Toni Collette’s Oscar-ready scream
If there is one indelible image from “Hereditary,” it’s the moment when, as her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is engulfed in flames in front of her eyes, Annie’s horrified scream switches instantly to an expression of profound blankness — a sight more unnerving than any other in Collette’s master-class acting tour through grief, terror and psychopathy.
It’s a potent display of the range Collette is able to access within her malleable face, twisting from one extreme of human emotion to another in one unbroken shot; it is Collette’s Edvard Munchian moment.
And she nailed it in one take.
“It was the last shot of the movie,” said Aster. “I had to get out of there to shoot the last coverage that we needed for the road sequence, so we had one take: ‘Let’s just do it now.’”
“It was the last shot, it was like 2 in the morning, and we did it once,” Collette confirmed, adding that she and Aster hadn’t discussed what should go into that moment before the camera rolled. “I mean, we talked a lot. He had so many ideas and so much research and so much backstory … but we’d never talked about the moment, and how it should come across, and how it would appear.”
The moment signals a point of no return in Annie’s journey, but even in her breaking point, Collette describes, there is some release.
“She becomes quite maniacal the closer she gets to the truth, and I love that it’s so ambiguous. You really could construe it as a woman losing her mind,” she said.
“Her whole life has been orchestrated and manipulated. This woman has had no sense of freedom and she has not understood it until now. In a way, I imagine it’s somewhat of a relief to understand what has been going on.”