Director Ari Aster Says 'Hereditary' Is A Family Drama At Its Core Critics and audiences have called the film "traumatizing" and "terrifying," and Aster says that was his intention: to upset audiences deeply. But he wanted to focus on family drama before horror.

Director Ari Aster Says 'Hereditary' Is A Family Drama At Its Core

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Film critics and audiences have called the new film "Hereditary" traumatizing and terrifying. It's a supernatural horror movie with plenty lurking just out of sight. NPR's Mallory Yu says part of what makes it so scary is that it's rooted in something real - a family's grief and trauma.

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: "Hereditary" starts with a funeral.

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TONI COLLETTE: (As Annie) It's heartening to see so many strange new faces here today. I know my mom would be very touched.

YU: That's Toni Collette, who plays Annie Graham. She's delivering the eulogy at her mother's funeral. And during a grief counseling session a few days later, it becomes clear that Annie has some complicated feelings about the woman.

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COLLETTE: (As Annie) She's completely manipulative. I didn't let her anywhere near me when I had my first, my son, which is why I gave her my daughter, who she immediately stabbed her hooks into. And I just - I felt guilty again. I felt guilty again.

YU: For the first 30 minutes, "Hereditary" feels mostly like a tense family drama.

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COLLETTE: (As Annie) I just don't want to put any more stress on my family.

YU: In the wake of her mother's death, Annie isolates herself from her husband, working long hours on highly detailed dioramas depicting scenes from her own life. Peter, her teenage son, is surly and gets high under the school bleachers with his friends. And her youngest daughter, Charlie, is taciturn and strange until...

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YU: ...Something unspeakably awful happens.

ARI ASTER: Something happens that is our Janet Leigh stepping into the shower scene.

YU: That's Ari Aster. He wrote and directed "Hereditary," and he says that scene...

ASTER: It's designed to be a left turn that changes the course of the rest of the movie. But I guess it's really also designed to operate more like a chute that opens up under the audience and kind of drops them into hell.

YU: It throws the Graham family into hell, too. Tensions that were already simmering under the surface begin to boil between Annie and her son, Peter.

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COLLETTE: (As Annie) I mean, why would I want to say something, so I can watch you sneer at me?

ALEX WOLFF: (As Peter) Sneer at you - I don't ever sneer at you.

COLLETTE: (As Annie) Oh, sweetie, you don't have to. You get your point across.

WOLFF: (As Peter) OK, so fine - then say what you want to say then.

GABRIEL BYRNE: (As Steve) Peter...

COLLETTE: (As Annie) I don't want to say anything. I've tried saying things.

WOLFF: (As Peter) OK, so try again. Release yourself.

COLLETTE: (As Annie) Oh, release you, you mean.

WOLFF: (As Peter) Yeah, fine, release me. Just say it.

ASTER: I really wanted the film to function first as a vivid family drama.

YU: This is director Ari Aster's first feature-length movie, and he says when he was pitching it to studios, he was careful not to call it a horror film.

ASTER: And the film is a horror film, and it's unabashedly one. But as I was pitching it, I was describing it as a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What's happening?

YU: There's a seance...

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You're scaring me.

YU: ...Demons and an innocuous noise that by the end of the film because downright terrifying.

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YU: But even as a supernatural conspiracy slots into place, the film stays rooted in that family's dysfunction. Caetlin Benson-Allott is a professor of film and media studies at Georgetown University.

CAETLIN BENSON-ALLOTT: They already had these minor dysfunctions, right? The tinder had been set so that when grief came for this family, they weren't equipped to deal with it. And that's a theme that a lot of us, I think, can identify with.

YU: Benson-Allott says that's part of what makes "Hereditary" so disturbing.

BENSON-ALLOTT: It's dealing with deeper and more lasting themes in horror - when life isn't perfect, when you're out of control and when maybe the people who are supposed to be protecting you are the ones who are doing the damage.

YU: "Hereditary" takes those themes and twists them into something deeply unsettling, and director Ari Aster knows it.

ASTER: I always knew that I was making a film that was potentially very alienating, you know? And it is a film whose primary aim is to upset the audience on a deep level.

YU: Which was apparently what a lot of people wanted this weekend. "Hereditary" made over $13 million, well above most box office predictions.

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YU: Mallory Yu, NPR News.

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