First time writer/director Ari Aster’s Hereditary opens in theaters this weekend after months of unbelievable hype. A24, the studio behind similar projects like The Witch and It Comes at Night, have been sure to market the film with clever and haunting promotional clips and tales of traumatized critics at film festival previews. Most movies which are blown so full of pre-release hot air tend to disappoint simply due to the sheer inability to live up to the vast expectations such buzz inevitably produces. However, Hereditary is one of those rare cases where everything you’ve heard about it is true. It’s deeply unsettling, it’s brilliantly acted and directed, and it comes from a school of filmmaking which expired decades ago to make way for louder, gaudier productions. For the same reasons why it’s excellent, this movie isn’t going to win over casual Friday night audiences; but Hereditary has all of the makings of a modern horror classic for discerning horror fans. Unforgettably haunting and “sleep with the lights on” scary, this movie is easily one of the best horror films of the decade.
The premise of Hereditary is simple enough: the Graham family is headed for an unavoidable crisis, and there’s nothing anyone can do but watch as they collectively unravel. The film opens on the day of the funeral for Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother, and it becomes instantly clear that the two didn’t have the most typical of relationships. Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), looks like he checked out years ago after the constant struggle of supporting his wife amid suspected mental illness and serious family trauma. The kids, Peter (Alex Wolf) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are emotionally impressionable due to their young ages, and understandably responding to the events of their lives differently based on their respective relationships with their elders. This isn’t the story of a healthy family experiencing a single terror; this is a tale of a group of people connected by wedding vows and DNA plummeting from bad to worse. Like the Torrance family of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, their problems are present from the film’s opening moments, and the supernatural happenings of the story merely push them to the point of no return.
The mundane trials (like signing up for SAT class before missing the deadline and selecting nut-free chocolate) and the horrific struggles (such as coming to grips with Mom’s penchant for homicidal sleepwalking) of the Graham family come to life through the incredible performances of the film’s actors. Toni Collette delivers the performance of a lifetime as Annie. Her character is deeply damaged by years of trauma, and she wears her troubles like an open wound. One of her most vivid and raw moments comes when she discovers the death of a loved one and she thrashes violently in the bed room, unable to be contained by her husband’s understanding arms as lighting splashes the walls. Collette and Gabriel Byrne effectively portray a couple which has lost the spark of their marriage long ago. The coldness of their actions sometimes give way to a degree of intimacy which drew them together during a better decade, but it’s clear from the start that these two would never realize a healthy reconciliation. Byrne is excellent at playing Annie’s foil, but Collette’s true co-star in this film is Alex Wolf. As her son, Peter bears the brunt of Annie’s matriarchal meltdown, and the honest screaming matches between the two are painful and revealing. When these confrontations make way for the supernatural torments of the final act of the film, the audience can’t help but feel invested in the deeply flawed and quickly deteriorating mother-son relationship. Milly Shapiro shines as Charlie, the troubled girl who had the closest relationship with Grandma before her passing. While her limited screen time prevents her from being the focus of the film, she makes a blunt impression on the viewer whenever she pops up on screen.
Hereditary builds its scares through brooding atmospheric imagery and the subtle building of tension which rarely ever breaks. The movie features just one “loud noise” jump scare, and every other scene slowly pulls the rubber band of the audience’s collective nerves with no comfortable releases. This movie is the anti-It or the anti-Insidious in that it provides all of the horrific setups of the better tropes of contemporary horror filmmaking (such as the ominous shape lingering just outside the audience’s clear line of vision), but nothing pops out and screams at the end of them to communicate to the audience that it’s time to take a breather. Instead, the viewer is left exhausted by a deliberately unnerving string of events. Even when Hereditary uses comic relief, the film’s dark sense of humor doesn’t let the audience off the hook for too long. This is not the kind of movie to watch if you’re looking to have fun being scared. Hereditary takes its toll on the viewer and it forces its way into the crevices of the mind. You simply won’t be able to watch this movie and stop thinking about it after the credits roll.
It’s impossible to review Hereditary without drawing connections to the films from which Aster clearly draws inspiration. By now, anyone following the release of this movie has heard the comparisons to horror classics such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Wicker Man, and Carrie. These connections aren’t just based on the premise of each film or their respective themes. It’s how Aster tells a story and fills the screen which really force Hereditary to be considered alongside such classics. The occultist imagery of the film hearkens back to a time where cinematic demon worshipers could be bumbling middle-class nobodies looking to fill a void or get rich quick, instead of adept super villains with million dollar lairs and infinite resources. The fractured family system is fully realized due to a classical approach to horror filmmaking which relies more on fleshing out character interactions than designing the ultimate pop-out boogeyman. Visually, Hereditary looks the most like a cross between the precision of Stanley Kubrick and the shock of Sam Raimi. The long, slow, lingering hallway shots and booming ominous score will cause any horror fan to lovingly recall the interiors of the Overlook Hotel; while some of the more visceral moments have the unrestrained feel of Evil Dead 2 or Drag Me to Hell.
With such comparisons in mind, it should be noted that these characteristics merely accent what is ultimately original storytelling. Aster seems driven to tell the story of the Graham family first and foremost, and none of his inspired accents stray into territory of straight-up homage. In fact, Aster seems disinterested in spending too much time on the tropes of horror history. Hereditary features nail-biting seances, disembodied penmanship, and graphic explosions of bloody violence; but they are often limited in length and unremarkable to the central characters in comparison to their intense focus on each other. This dialed-back approach allows Hereditary the screen time to experiment with new ideas and to truly shine as an original work. Shots such as the guilt-ridden imaginary rear-view mirror just outside of Peter’s periphery during a boring class, or the filmmakers’ insistence on showing the character’s reaction first (and then the object of his or her terror later) make the film an uncomfortable and unforgettable experience.
Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful; and Hereditary is one of the most downright gorgeous horror films of this generation. A gloomy funeral has simply never looked as pretty as it does in the opening shots. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski captures everything from striking scenes of nature to the uncanny imagery of Annie’s dioramas with a rich and expansive palette. Proper black levels are key to many of the movie’s eeriest shots, and all sorts of creatures lurk in the deep expanse of such background scenery. The camera is fluid and dreamlike as it floats about, and it often takes the viewer on an unwanted slow crawling ride towards some kind of visual atrocity. One of the main visual motifs of the film (which is enhanced by the stage-like dramatic performances of the actors) is the concept of the actions within the Graham household mimicking the confined settings of the miniature dioramas of Annie’s creation. Reinforcing the dreamlike feel of the film, the house and its inhabitants are sometimes shot in such a way that they lose the weight and circumstance of a full-size real life house. This feeling is exacerbated by the unnatural green glow of the trees surrounding the Graham house in nighttime shots, and the jarring transitions between daytime and nighttime scenes, as if a higher power simply flicked a light switch in between scenes. While the movie is far from a being an obscene gore fest Aster and Pogorzelski make it count when they finally allow the camera to settle on a disturbing image. There is simply always something disturbingly wonderful to look at in Hereditary.
So you may be asking yourself why I began by declaring that Hereditary won’t be universally loved by all audiences before penning an extensive love letter to the film. Ironically, the reasons why I think the movie is great are all the same reasons why I’m confident it won’t jibe with some viewers. First of all, its contemporary horror tropes are used sparingly and their appearances are few and far between. People expecting a film chock full of ghosts and jump scares should look someplace else. Also, like the horror films of yesteryear, Hereditary isn’t afraid to go whole hog into the absurd when it finally barrels toward its conclusion. The transition is quite jarring and the filmmakers don’t dress up the more outlandish moments with modern window dressings (for example: at one point a headless body merely weightlessly ascends to a tree house instead of creepily skittering up the side of the wall as it might in a similar, more mainstream release). Some audiences may not appreciate the visual outcome of such an approach. But at this point, dedicated horror fans should know exactly what A24’s shtick is (uncompromising and original horror storytelling with a focus on character over cheap scares), and many will know whether they’ll like Hereditary based on whether they enjoyed something like Robert Eggers’ The Witch (especially seeing as Hereditary is essentially a modern day retelling of many of the concepts and themes of The Witch).
After just one screening, my mind won’t let me forget Hereditary… which is great because I don’t ever want to forget Hereditary! Toni Collette delivers a career best with this movie, while Ari Aster’s and Alex Wolff’s work establish themselves as must-see up and comers in the industry. There’s simply nothing quite like it on the silver screen these days, and it offers a visceral and traumatic movie-going experience which attacks one’s mind just as equally as it overwhelms one’s eyes. Whether moviegoers end up loving or hating it will have a lot to do with personal tastes and knowledge of horror history, but one thing’s for sure: no one will be able to say they weren’t moved in some way by this film.