When Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” premiered in the midnight section at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, it became the sort of instant sensation that makes careers overnight. Many viewers, jarred by the traumatic story of a grieving mother (Toni Collette) whose family is haunted by an ominous presence, crowned it one of the scariest movies ever made. The reaction arrived right on schedule for producer and distributor A24, which has mapped out a spooky marketing plan that included ominous deliveries at SXSW and an unnerving trailer that has been viewed nearly 3.5 million times on YouTube. The company expects the hype to pay off big time when it releases “Hereditary” nationwide on June 8.
The attention has earmarked Aster, an AFI film school graduate whose short films have gained traction on the festival circuit over the past decade, as an exciting new writer-director. Aster already had representation through WME at Sundance, but the reception to “Hereditary” led him to receive a whole new set of offers to discuss studio projects. So far, however, he’s saying no to all of them.
“I’m not interested,” he said, in an interview at a raucous brewery in New Orleans’ French Quarter, where “Hereditary” was screening as the closing night entry at The Overlook Film Festival, an annual horror movie showcase. “It’s fun to get these offers,” he said, “but I’ve got so many films I want to make.” He’s already scouting locations for his next project, based off another original screenplay, though he declined to elaborate on the details. “It’s folk horror, but like ‘Hereditary,’ it’s also something else — it becomes horror,” he said, and added that, among the several projects he’s written, it’s “only other horror project out of everything else I want to do.”
In other words, the director of the year’s biggest horror movie sensation doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by the genre, and at the Overlook, he epitomized a sensibility found throughout the festival.
“I’m hoping that these films are nuanced enough, that they serve as serious cinema in a way that doesn’t present me as a horror filmmaker,” he said. He expressed disdain for a vast majority of studio-produced horror movies. “It feels like a product that’s being mindlessly produced,” he said. “I don’t like horror films that are cynical in that way, like, let’s get the jump scares in there, let’s meet the formula, and let’s make our money. There are a lot of studios that are intent on only producing that kind of work. It gives the genre a bad name because they come out in droves.”
Aster’s perspective aligned with sensibilities found throughout the discerning crowds of the Overlook, a showcase for horror made far beyond the clutches of Hollywood formula, and a microcosm of the genre’s ongoing appeal. Horror movies are bigger than ever, and like every other niche in the industry, they face pressure to evolve. Another high profile screening at the festival was “St. Agatha,” an enjoyable combination of torture porn and nunsploitation that was the latest effort from Darren Lynn Bousan (best known for directing the second, third and fourth “Saw” movies as well as “Repo! The Genetic Opera”).
But despite his latest feature, the filmmaker has veered away from franchise filmmaking and found a second passion in immersive theater, which he has explored with the Las Vegas interactive project The Tension Experience. “I just want to keep doing different kinds of things,” he said at a Q&A for his new movie. “This festival combines my two passions.”
He wasn’t alone. Immersive theater and virtual reality dotted the lineup of the Overlook almost as much as the movies, reflecting a mounting desire to push the genre beyond its most predictable ingredients. In addition to 23 features in its lineup, programmers also curated a selection of five virtual reality experiences, eight live events, and one game that extended across the entire weekend. Participants explored the neighborhood’s colonialist architecture on history-laden ghost tours, and many signed up for an interactive experience that sent participants on a scavenger hunt for cult-related clues around town. Other immersive projects took place at the historic Bourbon Orleans Hotel (which, per one ghost tour guide, holds a reputation as the most haunted hotel in the city — beware the girl with the bouncing ball on the sixth floor).
“Lovers of all things horror tend to be very receptive to the bizarre, and the macabre and are game to take chances with new and unusual forms of storytelling,” said Overlook co-director Landon Zakheim. “Plus, who doesn’t want to spend some time getting a chance to simulate living the tropes and storylines we’ve gotten so used to watching on screens?”
One highlight was “In Another Room,” a sampling of the Los Angeles theater production that finds participants participating in a scene with actors playing ghosts of former residents. The scene showcased at the Overlook required audience members to sit on the bed of a hotel room and use a Ouija board with a young woman, while another actor played a disturbing spirit across the room. More daring participants signed up for “Blackout,” the latest traumatic production described by producers Kristjan Thor and Josh Randall as an “X-rated fear experience” in which participants are blindfolded and subjected to verbal abuse.
The range of experiences, all of which were sold out throughout the weekend, spoke to an appetite for horror-based storytelling that extends beyond the most obvious experiences, and falls more in line with Aster’s desire to avoid narrow interpretations of the genre. “Hereditary” was such a hot ticket that the festival had to add a second screening at the last minute. “The film signifies the arrival of a bold voice in Ari Aster for both horror and contemporary cinema in general,” Zakheim said. He noted that the hype surrounding the movie “represents the strength of the genre today and the hold that great horror has over an enthusiastic audience.”
The festival’s second edition arrived in the wake of major strides for the genre in 2017, when “Get Out” pulled in $175 million at the box office, “Annabelle: Creation” made over $100 million, and the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” pulled in over $700 million worldwide. So far, 2018 is continuing that trend. As the Overlook took place, John Krasinki’s innovative monster movie “A Quiet Place” reclaimed the top spot at the box office, while the supernatural mystery “Ghost Stories” (which screened atthe Overlook on opening night) topped the specialty box office. Insiders are speculating that “Hereditary” could end up as A24’s biggest opening weekend ever.
The enthusiasm around the movie epitomizes a growing desire to celebrate the expansive possibilities of the horror genre. A year earlier, the festival took place on the other coast, in Mt. Hood, Oregon, where its closing night entry was another A24-produced horror effort, Trey Shults’ “It Comes at Night.” Like Shults’ movie, “Hereditary” uses the framework of a disturbing, otherworldly circumstance to explore the intimate pains of family bonds falling apart.
“I know that what I do is more welcome in the horror space,” Aster said. “My films typically veer towards the darker side, and I enjoy turning things on the audience. I really enjoy working in genre because people come into the film with certain expectations, and they know the tropes so well, that when you turn on those it can be really shocking. There’s a complaisance that comes with watching those films.”
His perspective struck a notable contrast to other recent career paths for genre directors. These include Jon Watts, whose 2015 Sundance midnight hit “Cop Car” led to a gig directing “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and Nicolas Pesce, another Sundance discovery with the disturbing 2016 black-and-white horror movie “The Eyes of My Mother,” who’s currently working on a reboot of “The Grudge.” Aster doesn’t expect to go in those directions, and as he mused on a ritual that tends to catapult directors into studio projects with less autonomy, he made it clear that he planned to stay away.
“Those filmmakers do that because they don’t have the leverage to make something that’s personal and suits them,” he said. “I think I’d be heartbroken by that process. I don’t think I could. I’m impressed when filmmakers do that and make it personal, but I also think it’s easier if you’ve taken the time to establish yourself and gain leverage. I don’t have that leverage to be able to do that.”
In the meantime, he was right at home at the Overlook. “Through engaging with horror in a wide variety of different forms, we try to put on a dark carnival of sorts,” Zakheim said. “We can honor the history of the genre, and hopefully encourage our audience to re-discover why they fell in love with horror in the first place.”