Why in the movies, home is the scariest place to be
Ari Aster’s terrifying debut feature “Hereditary” begins with an extraordinary opening shot. In a cluttered room, the camera gently zooms in on an elaborate dolls’ house, singling out a first-floor bedroom, completed in intricate detail. As the diorama fills the lens, a man — real, flesh and blood — walks through the bedroom door, shaking his son out of sleep. The boy is late for his grandmother’s funeral.
“Hereditary” — Ari Aster’s debut feature has shot into headlines as arguably this year’s scariest movie. Underpinning the drama is a disturbing family home where misdeeds abound and tensions — domestic and supernatural — run high. It’s indebted to a long line of spooky houses on screen. Scroll through to discover CNN Style’s top picks. Credit: A24
The camera moves on, but the mise en scene is established. The uncanny is turned loose, the real and the phantasmagoric emulsified. These characters are the playthings of some external force, the setting a willing conspirator. Home is where the horror is.
Such ideas are not new to the genre, and whether it wants to admit it or not, Aster’s film is the convergence of so many of horror’s expressions of the domestic sphere. To speak nothing of the plot (and it’s best not to) the writer-director exploits everything from Greek tragedy to Gothic literature to 1980s slasher flicks, with dashes of “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Don’t Look Now” and “The Shining” all stirred into his nightmarish cocktail.
Revolving around a stay-at-home artist untethered by grief, Toni Collette’s performance is receiving early Oscar buzz. But every actor needs a stage, and the one conjured by production designer Grace Yun deserves attention — it too is a character in its own right.
The family home is a profoundly unsettling space, even if we have seen some of these ideas before. This familiarity begs the question: why are we still so scared? And secondly: why do we keep coming back for more?
No safe spaces
French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes in “The Poetics of Space,” “If one would ask us what is the most precious benefaction of the house, we would say: the house accommodates dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows us to dream in peace.”
It follows that if peace and protection is stripped away from the house, it presents something of an existential crisis to its occupants. (Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” cloaked in grandiose allegory, had this simple idea at its heart.) Continue Reading