Is cult hit Hered­i­tary this gen­er­a­tion’s Ex­or­cist?

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

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - IN­TER­VIEWS ARI ASTER

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 NewYork born wri­ter­di­rec­tor 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 short film Aster made af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute, went vi­ral as peo­ple started film­ing them­selves re­act­ing to its taboo­bust­ing tale of a black mid­dle­class 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, Pixarin­spired short Mun­chausen (2013), in which a dot­ing mother’s re­fusal to cut her col­lege­bound 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 no­brainer 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-

I tried to bother peo­ple on a deep level

jazz drum­mer; his mother, Bob­bie Lurie, a vis­ual artist­turned-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 psy­cho­sex­ual thriller The

Pi­ano Teacher, Lars von Trier’s dis­turb­ing Dogville and Roy An­der­s­son’s pitch­black 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, “un­home­like”, 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 to­day

7 »WM R] easy to write dark ma­te­rial; it can be a re­lief

Milly Shapiro in Hered­i­tary


Ari Aster: crit­i­cal ac­claim


Toni Col­lette in Hered­i­tary

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