After taking the Sundance Film Festival by storm and instantly inserting Toni Collette into this year's Oscar conversation, "Hereditary" has finally been handed down to theaters by A24.
Director Ari Aster marks a debut that has earned nearly universal praise for its wrenching emotional drama on top of bleak and relentless terror -- and infused excitement into a genre that pumps out titles on a factory line.
From his own script, Aster gives us a tense and stifled American family who falls apart after the death of its matriarch, Collette's on-screen mom. Thing is, there are more sinister forces at work than old-fashioned resentment and skeletons in the closet.
So, how'd he do it?
"It's all been such a crazy surprise and such a welcome one," Aster told TheWrap of the movie, which is tracking above projections and should land around $12 million this opening weekend.
"I grew up obsessed with horror films, and I would exhaust the horror section of every video store I could find, [but] a lot of them are produced very cynically these days. There is a built-in audience and the expectations are very clear. The risk-reward algorithm is very much in the studio's favor," he said.
Aster isn't wrong. Much of the horror fare we see in theaters comes from long-standing franchises like "The Conjuring" series or titles from Jason Blum's low-budget cash machine, Blumhouse. They exist in a model based on perpetuation, not unlike the reigning superhero tentpoles.
"A lot of these movies are put out in droves, and I feel like horror movies are typically perceived as guilty until proven innocent. There are always exceptions, especially lately, like 'The Witch' or 'Let the Right One In,'" said Aster, whose favorite is a South Korean from Fox and Ivanhoe Pictures called "The Wailing," currently streaming on Netflix.
Writing "Hereditary" was a "strategic" move, according to the director.
"I figured it would be easier to get a film financed that way. But I asked, 'What do I want from the genre? What do I wish I was getting more of?'" he said.
What he wanted, the director said, "was to make a film that first functions as a vivid family drama and that takes it seriously. To really look at the family's suffering before I thought about how to attend to the horror elements. In that sense, the film owes a greater debt to the domestic melodrama than it does to the horror movie."
Collette plays a long-suffering daughter and irritable mother of two kids, trying to process the death of her controlling and secretive mom before she's hit with another unspeakable tragedy. Despite the weary supervision of her husband (Gabriel Byrne), devastating secrets and boiling rage take over. Oh, and some unwelcome and evil supernatural tenants move in, too.
"When I first sent out the script, a lot of people would criticize it saying, 'The family is already complicated in the beginning, so when things fall apart, it's not affecting. We don't care because they're already not doing well,'" Aster said.
"I don't agree with that. I know that's the way that these genre films often operate, is that you set up a happy family so that you can then destroy it. I don't know this mythical happy family that is totally idealized and there are no issues, no history, no unspoken stuff that hasn't been worked through," he said.
His conviction brings a dazzling but soul-crushing result. Be thankful he didn't pander to the rules of the genre. Be more thankful you're not related to the people on screen.