The scariest horror movies can be a test not just of your courage, but of your endurance, too. How long is too long to sit tense with dreadful anticipation? In its first cut, the upcoming horror movie Hereditary was three hours long–and that would have asked too much of audiences, according to writer and director Ari Aster.
Hereditary follows the Graham family as their lives unravel following the death of family matriarch, Ellen. As we stated in our review, “a dysfunctional family isn’t a particularly original source of horror, and Hereditary doesn’t blow the genre open with some revolutionary new take. It’s just gripping, white-knuckled, old school horror that never, over more than two hours, lets you get comfortable for long, despite the familiarity of its themes and tropes.” So how does it keep the tension up?
Aster told GameSpot that he wanted to strike a balance between horror and family drama in Hereditary. “There’s a dance that we were doing,” he said. “I needed it to work as much as a drama as a horror film.”
That “dance” involved meeting the demands of both genres. Aster believes films of any genre–from horror to comedy–are only “satisfying” to audiences if they meet the demands of that genre, and in doing so meet the audience’s expectations. “The challenge then becomes, how do I meet those demands in ways that people are not expecting?” he said.
For Hereditary‘s drama side, that meant exploring the characters’ relationships as much as possible. But that also wound up being where most of the cuts occurred.
“I wanted the film to work as a family drama,” Aster said. “I needed to attend to the family dynamics and build a pretty vivid history for them.”
Aster’s first cut of the film was three hours long, and it was clear he’d need to trim it significantly–the writer and director said that version “tested people’s patience.” The final theatrical release is just two hours and seven minutes. With almost an hour gone, the big question for fans is going to be what was removed.
“There were about 30 scenes that were on the cutting room floor, and all of those are drama scenes,” he said. “We took more time originally to develop these people.”
A horror movie that isn’t concerned with developing its characters typically ends up being a cheap slasher, but despite these hefty cuts, Hereditary is the polar opposite. As the Grahams’ spiral into misery takes them to unexpected places, you’re all the more invested and terrified because it’s so easy to relate to and understand them as people. The characters are so well-developed that it doesn’t feel like almost an hour of footage was trimmed. And that lets the other side of Aster’s “dance”–the horror side–take center stage.
“There is a certain amount of complacency that comes with watching a horror film or a thriller, because you know what they do. And that’s what you want. You’re there for that,” he said. “People are coming in because there’s like, a dare on the part of the audience. ‘OK, scare me. Let’s see.’ And I did my best to.”
At the same time, you don’t want to simply deliver exactly what audiences are expecting. “How do you give people what they want, but in a way that they don’t really want it?” Aster continued. “Some of the best experiences I’ve had in the theater is when I feel that I’ve come in expecting one film and I receive one that I didn’t bargain for.”
Actress Milly Shapiro, who plays 13-year-old Charlie Graham, told GameSpot she “had a feeling” as a horror fan that this movie was going to be big.
“When I read the script, I knew that people were gonna like it,” she said. “It wasn’t like everything else that I had read before, and it wasn’t like every other horror movie. There was a lot more developed in the relationships and the family, and even if you took all the horror out, it would still be a good movie.”
Alex Wolff, who plays Peter Graham (and starred in last year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle as Spencer), said Aster is “a genius” when it comes to horror. “The feeling [in Hereditary] is the hyperbole of absolute anarchy, and the depths of guilt and the depths of trauma in a family, and feeling like you’re cursed,” he said. “I think that’s the emotional subtext.”
But at its core, Hereditary is a horror movie through and through. Whether you’re a horror diehard or have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the theater to see this movie, there are scenes in Hereditary that will shock you.
“I was very excited about making a film that really satisfied hardcore genre fans, while at the same time attending to an audience that typically wouldn’t go to those films,” Aster said. He focused so much on developing the characters so that it would be extra jarring when bad things happened to them.
“We develop these people so that you’re invested in them, so that when these things happen…they really feel like betrayals,” he said. “The film attaches itself, sympathetically, to the character’s emotions. I wanted to make a film that collapsed under the weight of what these people are going through.”
“Those scenes that are really doubling down on the horror elements are the things I think that will really deeply affect–and probably in ways that they won’t like–the people who are there who don’t typically go to horror films,” he continued.
“I think the thing that makes it so relatable is everyone has felt like they were cursed or had bad things after bad things happen,” Shapiro said. “I think people are waiting for something new, and they want something that isn’t like every horror movie ever, and I think Hereditary really brings that.”
Hereditary hits theaters June 8.