Director Ari Aster’s debut film is scarily good. And that might be a problem

As the terrifying flick ‘Hereditary’ opens worldwide, Aster shows his skills behind the camera portend something more than ‘just’ a career in horror. Will he get another chance?

In this May 21, 2018 photo, director Ari Aster poses for a portrait to promote his film 'Hereditary' at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)
In this May 21, 2018 photo, director Ari Aster poses for a portrait to promote his film 'Hereditary' at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK — It was nothing if not an interesting weekend for the 31-year-old Jewish-American director Ari Aster. His first movie “Hereditary” hit theaters, and for a modestly budgeted, unusual film it was a significant financial success, taking in over $13 million, more than had been projected.

The film — a raw, nerve-racking portrayal of grief told through a horror lens — has had critics doing cartwheels since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film has the coveted “certified fresh” status on Rotten Tomatoes.

There is, of course, a hitch.

Cinemascore, an industry rating system that polls exiting theatergoers on opening night, gave “Hereditary” a pitiful “D+”.

Most agree that Cinemascore is more of a grade about how the movie is marketed — and how that marketing meets audience expectations, but the film now has a bit of a cloud over it, at least with the mainstream horror audience. (“They said it was scary, but it was just weird!”)

For Aster to promote his next movie as “from the director of ‘Hereditary’” is now a double-edged sword.

This is all very much inside baseball, and it wouldn’t matter at all if Ari Aster weren’t such a talented young man with an extraordinary, lengthy career ahead of him.

Born in New York City and raised in New Mexico, Aster has been cagey about discussing his family life in interviews. Perhaps that’s due to the subject matter of “Hereditary,” a gruesome film starring Toni Collette as an artist/matriarch sent into a spiral when her mother dies.

Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, and Alex Wolff star in Ari Aster’s ‘Hereditary.’ (Courtesy)

Her son, played by Alex Wolff (and likely avatar for Aster) is guilty of bringing harm to the family, and has his darkest suspicions confirmed: He is an unwanted child. There follows a series of terrifying reversals and betrayals, including some of the most frightening images you are likely to see in a theater this year. But they are not the typical “jump scares” associated with mainstream horror films.

The creeping dread is extremely effective. But what’s even more interesting is that during the promotional run-up to the movie, Aster has been hesitant to refer to himself as “a horror director.” I attended a talk he gave at Lincoln Center mere hours before the movie opened to the public, and in lieu of mentioning other films that deal with themes of demonic possession, he name checked the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and psychological workouts directed by arthouse titan Ingmar Bergman.

There are a number of ways to interpret this, and I think it is fair to say that Aster, who attended the prestigious American Film Institute and was no doubt raised in something of an “enriched milieu,” isn’t necessarily ashamed of being categorized as a horror director. But he is too smart not to be aware what that epithet would mean for the development of his career.

Fairly or not, horror movies don’t play at Cannes. They play at theaters that serve beer. Your fans are not Lincoln Center intellectuals. They are men with neckbeards, and women with dyed black hair and tattoos. They get very huffy when things “aren’t scary.”

It’s very telling, and perhaps shrewd, that just as the movie hit screens Aster spent a full hour at a lightly attended, genteel conversation with the editorial director of the very highbrow Film Comment Magazine. He’s making a clear choice about who he wants to associate with.

“It’s packed with genre clichés,” Aster says of his film, “hopefully to breathe new life into the form.”

When he graduated from AFI he had written a number of screenplays, but was having the usual difficulty securing funding. It’s clear he has the goods: What resonates so much in the film are the emotional moments, particularly Toni Collette’s performance, which echo movies like Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” more than any “Paranormal Activity” or “The Conjuring” despite what the marketing may suggest.

One gets the impression that Aster wrote a very good script, looked at the marketplace, then said, “okay, it’s my first time out, let’s sprinkle some Satanic stuff in here.” Horror sells on opening weekend.

From left, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ari Aster, Toni Collette and Milly Shapiro attend a special screening of ‘Hereditary’ at Metrograph on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

It’s a little depressing that he needed to do this, but it’s a smart and realistic trade-off to kickstart a career. As far as that “D+” is concerned, when I saw the movie with fellow critics, all were very impressed, but one colleague did confess that he thought he’d missed a chapter: “Wait a minute, all of a sudden people can fly?”

Perhaps we critics do sometimes get so caught up in more esoteric aspects of films we forget to pay attention to what’s on the surface.

All the same, Aster is already off to the races. He’s in pre-production of his new movie, shooting in Hungary. He referred to it as a “an apocalyptic breakup movie.” It’s likely that there won’t be any horror elements at all, and the mainstream horror audiences that bought opening night tickets then turned their backs won’t be coming for this one. And I doubt Ari Aster will care.

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