The story behind 'Hereditary,' the Toni Collette horror movie that scared the bejesus out of Sundance
At first glance, "Hereditary" hardly looks sinister. It begins quietly at a grandmother's funeral. Annie (Toni Collette), an artist with a fondness for creating miniature dollhouses, feels tired but emotionless. That worries her.
She asks her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), whether she's supposed to feel sadder over the death of her mother. He says that will happen in due time. But the events in "Hereditary" will bring no comfort for Annie, her husband or their two children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro).
While the movie's trailers and poster paint it as a thrillfest, "Hereditary" is actually a family drama in disguise. Director Ari Aster, in his first feature, marries the horror and melodrama genres into an unnerving movie about grief.
"I pitched the film as a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare, in the way that life can feel like a nightmare when disaster strikes," Aster said. "In that way, the film owes a greater debt to domestic melodramas than it does to the horror movie."
"Hereditary" caught moviegoers' attention at Sundance, where it was one of the more buzzed-about titles among industry insiders and press. It was not unlike the demand for fellow family-horror film "The Witch" a few years back, when even late-night screenings filled up early. Some have floated the idea that both titles -- put out by the indie studio-of-the-moment A24 -- are part of a recent spate of creative, critically acclaimed horror movies including "Get Out," "A Quiet Place" and "It Comes at Night."
Aster, however, doesn't buy the talk that we're in a time of "peak horror."
"The horror genre had developed a bad name because so many of them are made so cynically," he said. "They can be superficial exercises, but I feel like we've always had exceptions to that. It's nothing new that the horror genre is lousy with duds. Even when 'Rosemary's Baby' or 'The Exorcist' came out, those were the exceptions."
Collette said the script caught her eye because it was so radically different from the roles that come her way. She quickly connected with Aster, who impressed her with how much of the movie he had already planned out in his head. "He knew every shot he wanted, every nuance," Collette said. "He sent me pages and pages of back story."
For instance, according to Collette, one detail that didn't make it into the film is that Annie was also a patient of her therapist husband. It's not necessary to the events in "Hereditary," but it explains a great deal about the pair's relationship dynamic.
"She's not quite comfortable in her role as a mother or a wife," Aster said of the protagonist. "She's been pushed into these roles and doesn't feel like her life is her own."
Yet, she's not the villain's only target. As the title suggests, her whole family is threatened. "The film is ultimately a conspiracy film told from the perspective of the people being conspired against," Aster said. "Her whole life has been leading to this inevitable end."
As in other recent family horror movies, like this year's "A Quiet Place" or 2016's "It Comes at Night," the adults in "Hereditary" fear losing a child but feel powerless against forces that no one else can see. Even though she's not one for horror movies, Collette said the scarier aspects of the film didn't bother her.
"I really admired that the horror elements were an extension of something really true," she said. "None of it is gratuitous. Because you are able to get to know the characters at the beginning and you emotionally invest in them as they go through what's pretty much the most painful period anyone could go through in life."
Aster said he deliberately amped up the drama in the film slowly. "I'm not affected by anything in a film unless I'm invested in the people at the center of it," he said. "I wanted to take my time and immerse people in this family's life and their dynamic, which is quite complicated. I just wanted to make a film in the tradition of the horror films I grew up loving, like 'Rosemary's Baby,' 'Don't Look Now' and 'The Innocents.' Films that take their time are very much rooted in character."
Setting is also vital to the creepiness in "Hereditary." The family's luxury cabin in the woods has the right dark corners and haunted attics to make it feel like a trap where its inhabitants are left to slowly die. Annie's miniature houses become a motif.
"The miniatures just struck me as a potent metaphor for the family's situation," Aster said. "They have no agency, and they're revealed over the course of the movie to be like dolls in a dollhouse, being manipulated by these outside forces."
One of the film's most striking elements is sound, such as the ominous beats or a clicking tongue. "There were experiments laid out in the script, and then there were just things we were trying out in the room, like playing a lot with directional sound and having different clicks play from different speakers," Aster said. "The movie is designed for a theater."
"It really enhances the film without taking you out of it," Collette said. "You notice it, but it's serving a bigger purpose. It's so beautiful and weird."