Whilst Hereditary easily places itself amongst the canons of stellar modern day horror outings like The Witch, The Babadook and It Follows, Ari Aster’s unsettling debut feature is more comparable to genre classics such as Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist. Adopting a slow burn mentality that may not please mainstream audiences seeking more conventional scares, Hereditary is less a horror film and more a psychological attack on the senses, unnerving its audience and evidently delighting itself in doing so.
If you can avoid learning of plot specifics then you’ll be doing yourself an immense favour as much of Hereditary’s enjoyment(?) comes from experiencing the unexpected. For a large portion of the film’s running time, there’s nothing particularly scary taking place, though the sense of dread that lingers over each frame informs us that we can never be too comfortable.
The film begins as the Graham family prepare for the funeral of matriarch Ellen, an evidently disturbed woman who fancied herself as something of a medium. Her daughter Annie (Toni Collette, committing 100% to the upsetting material in a performance worthy of Oscar chatter) is high-strung (to say the least) and her eulogy indicates their relationship was severely strained. Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) does his best to play both soother and peacekeeper in the household, with their children – stoner teenager Peter (Alex Wolff) and perturbed young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – differently affected by the passing of their grandmother; Peter wants to simply move on with his life, whilst Charlie, who we learn the grandmother was unnaturally obsessed with, appears frightfully shaken.
As writer/director Aster succeeds at creating an atmosphere of unrest, and certain sequences involving young Charlie prove Hereditary’s most intense, it really isn’t until the latter half of the film that the most horrific material comes into play, spurred on by the introduction of the helpful Joan (Ann Dowd), a cheery woman who Annie meets through a grief therapy group. Given that themes of loss and how one deals with their own grief run rampant throughout, the horror presented is far more psychological (the film thankfully avoids any cheap scare tactics) and you’re often unsure if what you’re witnessing is real or the Graham’s family heightened reaction to trauma.
I’m aware of how ambiguous the review reads, but it’s all for a specific reason as no film should be spoiled on any level prior to viewing, least of all something so massively affecting as this. This is flawless genre cinema that finds its strength in refusing to dumb itself down in fear of being rejected by audiences unversed in the thinking man’s horror movie.
When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. The more they discover, the more they find themselves trying to outrun the sinister fate they seem to have inherited. Making his feature debut, writer-director Ari Aster unleashes a nightmare vision of a domestic breakdown that exhibits the craft and precision of a nascent auteur, transforming a familial tragedy into something ominous and deeply disquieting, and pushing the horror movie into chilling new terrain with its shattering portrait of heritage gone to hell.
Hereditary is in cinemas now from June 7th