Hereditary has garnered a lot of hype on its way to movie theaters, drawing comparisons to such scary stalwarts as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or Repulsion. And while those comparisons may be somewhat misleading in terms of what to expect, Hereditary is certainly worthy of occupying a space next to those films in the hallowed halls of horror. It’s sophisticated, dark, uncomfortable, challenging, and it may leave some rank and file jump scare seekers confounded, but certainly not empty-handed.
The level of craft on display would be impressive for a seasoned director, but this is Ari Aster’s first film. His nimble use of cinematography and editing is clever and jarring. From the opening scene, Aster uses some cinematic sleight of hand to seamlessly drop actors Alex Wolff and Gabriel Byrne into a miniature diorama. Static exterior shots abruptly jump from night to day, bolstering the sense of turmoil and disorientation that pervades the film. Colin Stetson’s score supplements that mood, creating an oozing pulse accentuated with industrial rattles and clicks and a scraping, screeching arrangement of atonal strings.
The story centers around artist Annie Graham (Toni Colette) whose name betrays her enigmatic nature. Colette delivers an amazing performance as Annie, coping with the recent loss of her abusive mother while struggling to be attentive to her aloof children and increasingly beleaguered spouse. The strain is coupled with anxiety over the veritable minefield of her gene pool, a family curse that includes everything from dissociative identity disorder, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia, to sleepwalking and food allergies.
Like A24’s other critical horror darling, The Witch, Hereditary is an unnervingly voyeuristic experience. Audiences are forced to witness some of the most private and tense moments of family life, like dinners and bedtime confessions filled with blame, bitterness, and regret. These moments are completely relatable but so personal in nature that it feels as if you shouldn’t be seeing them. The film derives some of its most horrific and squirm-inducing moments not from ghosts and gore but from the quiet oppression of parental hell.
That’s not to suggest that this is entirely a psychological drama. There are plenty of ghosts and demons stalking the shadows. As with other recent arthouse horror flicks like The Babadook and It Follows, the bogeymen are metaphorical but provide a very real and visceral onscreen threat. They also provide a fairly graphic supply of gore. Aster has no qualms about lingering on scenes from which other directors would have quickly cut away or omitted altogether. It’s this penchant for reveling in distress that leads to a gobsmacking first act break that’s on par with Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Hereditary’s intellectual plotting and occasional scenery chewing may alienate some moviegoers, but this is a definite must-see for cinephiles and hardcore horror fans. The film itself isn’t easily accessible for everyone, especially the surrealistic pandemonium of the film’s fever-pitched third act, but its fears are universal. There’s nothing quite as horrifying as becoming your parents.