Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Hereditary. Read at your own risk.
It’s one of the most unsettling films you may ever watch – a dark, wickedly disturbing journey deep into the heart of a family reeling from the loss of a loved one whose evil secrets are now threatening to tear them apart. Ari Aster’s Hereditary is meticulously designed to slowly eat away at your emotions, one shocking moment at a time. It’s a character-driven family drama disguised as a horror movie, and when it hits, it hits hard.
Fandango sat down with Hereditary director Ari Aster for a special spoiler-filled discussion of the film’s most memorable moments and themes. From its inspiration to its most shocking death to that wild finale, Aster explained how and why it all went down.
The idea that started it all
When an idea for Hereditary first struck Aster, it didn’t have to do with an evil grandma or a story that revolved around a woman who built miniature houses. As Aster revealed, the film was born from a disturbing image that popped into his head one day.
Ari Aster: I think the image was a mother who had lost a child floating, like levitating in a dark room. Killing herself in the same way that the child had died. She was so destroyed, so utterly destroyed by what had happened to her child, that she needed to enact the same thing on herself. That was the first image [I had].
Just the image gave me chills, and I thought – that’s a scary image. And that’s a scary movie, right there. And then I thought, well, how amazing would it be if I could at first immerse viewers in the drama of what had happened? And lock them into the experience of being that family who suffered that loss. And then kick into high gear, and a horror movie takes over.
Many of the movies that served as inspiration weren’t horror movies at all
Aster looked to some classic horror films for inspiration, like 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, 1961’s The Innocents and 1973’s Don’t Look Now, but many of the movies on his mind were more in the realm of family dramas.
Aster: A lot of the films I was thinking about were not horror films, like Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers was a very important reference for me. Different family dramas, like The Ice Storm and The Bedroom. Mike Lee’s family dramas are some of my favorite films ever, like All or Nothing and Secrets and Lies.
That frightening “clicking” sound
Early on in the film, the daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), reveals an odd tic where she is always clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. What starts off as weird behavior eventually becomes one of the more frightening and memorable parts of the movie. We asked Aster how it came to be.
Aster: In the script, it’s the click of a tongue against the roof of your mouth. It’s a tongue click. Ultimately that was just a device. We needed a device, or I needed a device when I was writing the script that would serve first as a tic for Charlie, that was a distinguishing trait. A tic that would serve as a distinguishing trait, that would also serve as a distinct reminder of the character later on. In an audible, like an auditory reminder.
It was kind of like a happy accident. I knew that it was a device and I needed to do it. It was an effective device, because later on there are things we need to tell the audience in one moment, in one small gesture, and we knew that at the end. That click is a signifier of something very important at the end. So, for me, this device is a smart device, it’s going to help me in telling the story. And now it’s turned into this other thing, and of course I’m happy about that.
How clever movie marketing enhanced the film’s most shocking twist
Not far into the movie comes one of the most shocking twists in any movie this year: Charlie’s shocking death. As her brother races her toward a hospital following an allergic reaction at a house party, she is violently beheaded while leaning her head out of the window to get air. Aster credits A24 and their marketing for cleverly hiding this moment while placing Charlie front and center in the ads to subtly have audiences more invested in her before they even see the movie. This way, her death has a greater impact.
Aster: They’re amazing with marketing. And then this film, I feel they’ve just really, really honored the film. And they’ve been pushing the film. And there’s a very big twist that happens 30 minutes in, and they’ve really been protecting that twist with their life, and they’ve also been working to enhance the twist by setting us up for it by making people vulnerable to it – essentially, putting Charlie front and center.
I felt that was always the way it had to be done. We talked really early on and we were all in agreement. That it’s like, no. Charlie needs to be presented as a main character – this is our Janet Leigh shower scene, and we need to make sure that hits as hard as possible.
The importance of the “dinner table” scene
The centerpiece of the film revolves around a dinner table scene where the remaining family members try to move on after Charlie’s death, though no one realizes her death was actually the beginning of the end for all of them.
Aster: At that point, so much has happened between them and so little has been expressed or communicated, they’re not talking. They obviously have a very fraught history, and we learn more about that history later.
We’ve learned a little bit about that history just before. He’s very much responsible for something horrible that happened to their family. But then, she’s also indirectly responsible for that. And she’s not looking at that, and he’s looking at that too much. And she’s blaming him, but she’s also blaming him because he’s not acknowledging it. But then, she’s also blaming herself, but doesn’t want to look at that. In the scene, he brings up what she’s responsible for after she has said everything that’s been burning in her for weeks.
The idea was that we’re making a film about a total breakdown of communication, and then we have this purging that should be cathartic, and it is cathartic in the moment. But it ends without catharsis, because there’s more to be said. And there’s now a lot to be taken back. And neither of those things are going to happen. And so, it’s kind of the scene that promises to either release them from this or to really kick things up a notch. Instead, what it does, it takes this very arid, painful atmosphere, and instead of exploding it, it just raises the tension between all of them that much more. Even though all of this stuff has been said that hasn’t been unsaid, there’s so much left to be mined. And they’re now that much further from ever doing it.
Of course, that scene’s important because everything that’s not satisfying with that scene, I hope that the movie then feels loaded with all that baggage. And the ending, when the movie goes crazy, I’m hoping that it’s the payoff of that baggage. It’s the very toxic payoff of all that unaddressed baggage.
How they shot the big attic scene
Eventually all that toxicity between family members explodes into a wild finale that begins with the death of the father, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and leads to a complete demonic takeover of the mother, Annie (Toni Colette), who frantically chases her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), to their attic. That’s when Aster got to film the very first image that ever entered his mind: Annie floating above the room, viciously beheading herself.
Aster: [We shot that] near the end of production. We built the house on a stage, and that’s the last thing we shot in the attic because we were going to get a lot of blood on the floor. So we’ll do that last. We put Toni in a harness and elevated her 15 feet above the ground, and put a prosthetic neck on her.
So what’s up with that crazy finale? What, exactly, is happening and why?
Aster: It all came out of research. I have no ties to the occult, and it all creeps me out. Honestly, I wanted to make a film that was about a long-lived possession ritual but told from the perspective of the sacrificial lambs.
People who don’t know what is happening, but it’s happening. It’s been happening since before the movie started. And so, there’s this coven that’s kind of circling the family, and they’re lingering around the periphery. And every now and then, we feel them, or we see them, but we don’t really have any access to them. But, ultimately, this movie is their success story.
Did Toni Collette’s character know the whole time?
One debate moviegoers may have when they exit Hereditary is whether Toni Collette’s Annie knew the whole time that this had to play out the way it did.
Aster: I don’t think she knew what she was doing at all. But I do think that she has always known, on some intuitive level, who her mother was. I think that’s why she’s so troubled and so tortured. It’s because she knows that her life is not her own on some gut level. She knows that she’s being used for something horrible and that’s why she doesn’t feel comfortable in her role as a mother, I think; these were not her choices, this is not her life. Her life was built for something else, and it was built for this.
Will there be a Hereditary sequel?
Considering the film leaves us with this coven as Wolff’s Peter takes command, being the only survivor and evil heir, is it possible there’s a Hereditary sequel in the works?
Aster: I do have an idea for a Hereditary sequel that is extremely unorthodox. And we’ll see if this movie makes the kind of money to justify something like that. I would only make it if I could do it in that way. It would be very weird and crazy.
Hereditary is in theaters now. You can snag your tickets right here at Fandango.