There’s a scene early on in the new movie Hereditary that forces you, as a viewer, to accept that you’re totally screwed, to embrace the fact that you’re at the whims of a madman. When you first wade into the movie’s murky waters, it’s likely you clock the character of Charlie (Milly Shapiro) from the get-go and told yourself — a horror-film fan who proudly announces twists to their friends before they happen — This girl is clearly going to carry us through the movie. She’s upsetting. She’s giving off major bad vibes. She is going to start levitating and her head will spin, and I know this because she is a creepy kid and that’s what creepy kids do in these movies. You feel secure in this assumption. You, the genre connoisseur, know you’ve got this story in your back pocket.
And then, 30 minutes into the movie, Ari Aster dispatches his Trojan horse — and not in a delicate way. After she accidentally ingests peanuts and triggers a severe allergic reaction, Charlie goes into anaphylactic shock. As her brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), speeds down a dark country road to reach a hospital before she suffocates to death, Charlie clutches her throat and writhes violently in the backseat. He’s going to get there just in time, you start thinking. And his parents will be so furious at him for not looking after her that they’ll be blind to whatever evil she’s manifesting, and eventually it will be too late to stop her! Then … she gets decapitated. Desperate for air, Charlie puts half of her body out of the window, and when Peter suddenly swerves to miss an animal carcass in the road, it brings the car just close enough to a utility pole that it rips his sister’s head off.
It’s a brilliant twist that recontextualizes not only the beginning of the movie but also the state of mind that you brought with you before the first frame rolled. It’s a punishment of sorts for so arrogantly assuming that you had this movie already hacked in your head — and if you’re a longtime fan of horror, punishment on the big screen is exactly what you show up hoping for.
“I know that I, as a spectator, am always hoping for that from a movie,” Aster says of his film’s first big twist. “For that moment that tells me that I am no longer in control of this experience and I am in a filmmaker’s hands, because I know that I personally am very tired of going to films and knowing how they’re going to go and then having that feeling validated.”
To get the lowdown on how one of the year’s most shocking scenes came together, Vulture talked with the director and his two young stars about Hereditary’s soon-to-be infamous car wreck.
Ari Aster on Betraying Your Trust
Though Aster doesn’t talk about himself as a provocateur, he loves to deal in taboo. His most popular short films — The Strange Thing About the Johnsons and Munchausen — focus, respectively, on a son who’s been chronically raping his own father for years and a mother poisoning her teenage boy so he can’t run off to college and leave her. His work is confrontational, meticulously art-directed, and at least in part a response to a culture of studio horror films that tend toward either neat resolutions or adhere to standard patterns of narrative progression: introduction, catalyzing incident, intermittent scares, final showdown, repeat (with the typical “twist” being the addition of a final gotcha feel-bad scare).
Aster says he was a voracious horror consumer through his early teenage years, but has since, with a few annual exceptions, found the populist options to be too safe. So for his own feature, Aster’s counterpunch to that problem was to tease viewers with the exact movie they were expecting through about the first 30 minutes of Hereditary, before blowing it all up. After Peter swerves and his sister’s head is torn from her neck, the car stops. The sound drops out. The audience, like Peter, is in a state of shock — and exactly where Aster wants them to be. “It’s a left turn,” says the extremely mild-mannered writer and director. “But I really wanted it to serve as a chute that opens up under the audience and drops them out of the movie that they thought they were watching and into a new movie.”
Alex Wolff on Peter’s Worst Night Ever
To properly get into Peter’s head, Wolff decided to be the character as long as he was on set. That meant making Peter’s PTSD his own, and blending his own emotions with his character’s to make a singular toxic brew. After Charlie’s decapitation, Peter silently stares into the rearview mirror at his dead sister, and in that moment, Wolff is pulling all of his pain to the surface, despite his every instinct to shove it back down. “I don’t even think we realize how much we really do to protect ourselves,” Wolff explains. “You see something bad, almost impulsively you look away. When you sit on a heater, your first instinct is to jump up. Ow! That hurts! But in this movie, I had to sit on the heater and wait for it to burn, and the more it burned, the more I was like, Okay, this is good. This is good.”
The result of Wolff leaving himself to burn is an excruciatingly long, tight shot of Peter’s face. Like many of the most trying scenes in Hereditary, Aster drags it out to the threshold of self-indulgent to maximize discomfort, and puts his audience in emotional jail with his characters. For Wolff, that meant multiple takes of him slogging through a dark night of the soul as he perspires through his clothes. “I remember hearing ‘Cut!’ and looking down, and we had to change shirts because I was covered in sweat. My sweater was soaking wet,” says Wolff. “I was just dripping from my face and everything, and they were like, ‘All right, let’s change him out!’ So I’m walking back to the trailer — I think it’s the end of the day — and they’re like, ‘Oh, wait! We’re gonna do one more angle of the same thing.’ And I was like, ‘Jesus Christ!’”
Milly Shapiro on Charlie’s Remarkable Death
Although Shapiro (mostly) exits the screen early on in the story, her presence weighs heavily on the entire film. The actress makes Charlie so effectively destabilizing in Hereditary’s opening act that you feel her haunting you long after she’s gone, and her death is so damn traumatizing that it’s hard to get out of your head. On the day of shooting, Shapiro says massive fans were brought in to blow smoke and fog through the frame and create the proper “creepy” ambience. And while she wasn’t actually choking to death during the scene (damn Draconian labor laws!), the actress was getting properly wind-whipped as she hung out of the car while it drove through the darkness.
“It was great,” says Shapiro, whose shooting day sounds like it was much more entertaining than Wolff’s, who rained sweat and battled his inner demons. “They had someone holding my legs and I was tethered to the car, and I had this thing where I would hook my feet underneath the seat. But when they actually went by the pole, that was a stunt double because they were like, ‘We can’t decapitate her. We haven’t finished everything yet.’” A stunt driver was also brought in to take over for Wolff, who says his co-star “would’ve really gotten decapitated” had he been behind the wheel. If Shapiro ever wins an Oscar one day, she’ll have to be sure to thank Aster for not cutting her head off during her debut feature film — even if it would have been an unprecedented demonstration of commitment to her craft.