Part of me doesn’t want to talk about what makes Hereditary one of the best horror films of all time because, like many genre films, to do so would mean to spoil the entire thing. Suffice to say that the relentless, stomach churning dread of Ari Aster’s phenomenal debut feature – one that’s deeply indebted to a number of genre classics – is best watched by approaching it as cold and unassuming as possible. Hereditary is designed to scare the ever loving shit out of you, but also to provoke a great deal of thought. It burrows its way into your skin and leaves you with more than enough to chew on (and have nightmares about) once you leave the theatre.
78-year-old Ellen Tapper Leigh has passed away, leaving her family confused as to how they should feel. Annie (Toni Collette) is conflicted. While she’s devastated that her mother has died, she also realizes that Ellen wasn’t a good person; a meddler that constantly tried to integrate herself into her family’s affairs. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), pothead teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and awkwardly distant and creepy daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are probably better off without grandma around. But not long after the funeral, the family starts to become haunted and terrorized, both by a perceived run of coincidental bad luck and something potentially far more sinister and supernatural.
That’s about all that can be said about writer-director Aster’s constantly twisting and evolving story. One can only talk about the first thirty minutes of Hereditary before the game is up and everything that follows devolves into spoiler territory. But beyond listing off key plot points, talking about Hereditary would also do a great disservice to Aster’s purposefully metaphorical and referential material. This is the kind of horror film that years from now – once spoilers are fair game and out in the open – that will be talked about and analyzed for years through a number of different lenses.
There’s a heavy psychological and mental health aspect to Hereditary that feels more like a domestic drama about the nature of grief and inherited disease instead of a brooding horror film. There are pronounced religious and spiritual overtones that can’t be denied, but most of that hinges on the film’s largely wordless final act, where two of the family members serve as obvious metaphorical signposts. It can be viewed through an economic lens, via the family’s tenuous financial state following the funeral and Annie’s inability as a visual artists to produce the diorama’s she’s known for. Jumping off from that, Hereditary is also an artistic metaphor, with Annie’s increasingly dark creations serving as a reflection for the family’s lack of agency in the face of an undefined evil.
Aster has found four great collaborators in his primary cast, and while Byrne gets the short end of the stick in the most purposefully thankless role by design, Collette, Wolff, and Shapiro mesh perfectly with the filmmaker’s bleak view of family dynamics. Collette’s constantly changing tone and tenor will keep audiences off kilter, but grounded in the complexity of the film’s emotional backbone. Wolff does a fine job of vacillating between terrified and grieving, and Shapiro hits a sweet spot of creepiness and emotional awareness that few young actors her age could ever hope to approach.
Stylistically, Hereditary is indebted to the filmmaking greats of the genre, and that’s not a bad thing when Aster proves to be such a knowledgeable and patient student of the craft. The most obvious point of comparison would have to be Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, right down to Aster all but flat out recreating that film’s most iconic image. There are flashes of Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, The Shining, and even Ordinary People. It’s a pastiche of various tropes, themes, and images that other films have done before, but repackaged in a freshly contextualized and dramatically refreshing vision.
Hereditary is a twisty work of terror that’s made for intelligent audiences willing to engage with the underlying causes of this family’s plight. It courts allowing people to think that it’s overrated and leaning on the giants of the past, but to dismiss Aster’s delicate narrative construction and composition is to miss the point. Hereditary isn’t a funny movie, but Aster definitely hopes that the audience can identify with “the joke” and the emotions contained within it. For those willing to meet Aster’s film on its own terms, Hereditary will be a fascinating and fearful exercise that will stick in viewers’ minds longer than most of its “post horror” brethren. I was captivated and engaged from start to finish, and I’m also not ashamed to admit that Hereditary was the first movie to make me audibly scream aloud in the theatre since I was a teenager.
I’ve seen Hereditary twice now, and I have been compelled to take a deep dive into everything Aster is doing and saying, but I would also feel compelled to keep it under wraps for a couple of years. Audiences will get back what they put into Hereditary, and that’s something I would never dare to spoil.
Oh, and see it in a theatre. Don’t wait to see it at home. The cinematography is gorgeous, but it also has the best sound design of any horror film in decades. You’ll be convinced that there’s a demonic presence just behind your shoulders at all times. Like every other element to Hereditary, it’s designed to provoke the most extreme emotional responses possible.
Hereditary opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, June 8, 2018.
Check out the trailer for Hereditary:
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hello, in my opinion this film was good until the last 30 minutes.. after that it became a lame Rosemary’s baby wanna be
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