Writer/Director Ari Aster’s debut film is a story of a haunted lineage, of inescapable grief, and the fatality of family. It’s a slow burning thriller that evolves into a cinematic nightmare, eager to burn itself into the darkest corners of your mind. Hereditary isn’t designed to make you jump out of your seat, it’s built to keep you awake into the early hours of the morning. In short, it’s a modern horror masterpiece.
Toni Collette gives a career defining performance as Annie Graham, whose life begins to unravel after her mother, a mysterious and distant woman, passes away. Annie’s family history is marked by bleak tragedy and mental instability, and Annie fears that whatever has cursed her family is inside not just her, but also her two children – her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and his sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro). While Peter should strike you as the typical teen, there is something clearly wrong with Charlie. It’s not just the unsettling makeup work by effects master Steve Newburn, Shapiro plays Charlie as a girl seesawing between innocence and malice, made all the more concerning by the fact we learn that Charlie was Grandma’s ‘favorite’, whatever that means.
What starts as whispers and tricks of the light, slowly descends into a much deeper and darker kind of hell. Hereditary runs more than two hours long, and Aster has taken great pain to infuse every single minute with as much slow-burning tension as possible. Most films dive headfirst into their own horrific mythology – here we see the Graham’s straining to resist and ignore the horrific forces at work. Annie buries her anxieties into her artwork; she builds lifelike miniatures out of important moments from her life. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) desperately tries to things normal. When Annie’s mother’s grave is desecrated, he hides it from the family. But horrific things have a way of turning up.
There’s a lot at play in Hereditary. Aster isn’t afraid to use every part of the horrific animal, as it were, and the film’s ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach to horror can be exhausting. Hereditary exists in a world of ghosts, demons, cults, and conspiracies. By the time the film is over it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been husked. But that’s kind of the point. Hereditary is a slow death spiral down into a waking nightmare. It supposed to feel like an ordeal. Aster hasn’t created an easily digestible package. It’s a tough film to watch and it has a gut punch ending that people are going to be talking about for years. It’s not going to be be for everyone – great things never are.
Ari Aster has built quite a house of horrors, but Toni Collette is the glue that keeps it all together. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that showcases a range that most actors simply don’t have. Empathetic and horrific in equal measure, Collette provides us a deeply tragic portrayal of a woman losing the battle with her inner demons. If the Academy had any balls, we’d see a nomination with her name on it next January. But even if the Academy continues to be genre averse, Collette’s performances makes her an instant horror legend.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Hereditary is a film that is best viewed with as little knowledge as possible. Its brilliant advertising campaign has managed not to spoil any of its biggest twists, and I’ve tried to provide as light at touch as I possibly can. If you don’t like to be scared, you should stay as far away from this film as possible. If you’re a fan of the genre – run, don’t walk, to the nearest theatre. Ari Aster’s Hereditary is one of the scariest films ever made. Period. It’s a modern classic.