Synopsis – After the family matriarch passes away, a grieving family is haunted by tragic and disturbing occurrences, and begin to unravel dark secrets.
My Take – Last year was quite an exciting one for the horror, with thrilling films like Get Out, It, and Annabelle: Creation, giving us a taste of what the genre can be when done right. However, this year has been less than satisfying so far, with films like Insidious: The Last Key and Winchester failed to meet expectations despite the hype surrounding them. While it seemed like the John Krasinski directed fantastic A Quiet Place would be the only talking point in terms of genuine horror, it won’t take long for this A24 produced film from director/writer Ari Aster to join in the conversation.
With its outstanding reviews, strong buzz, and creepily powerful marketing, this film has come to theaters with far more buzz than the typical independent horror film, which can be chalked up at least in part to the outstanding track record and marketing efforts of indie distributor A24, who’s other films tend to be of great quality. Promoted as ‘The Exorcist of the new generation’, this one is without a doubt one of the most unsettling and viscerally horrifying films I’ve seen in years and I absolutely loved every single moment of it. Yet, for anyone expecting a quick scare for entertainment sake, would be clearly disappointed as this Ari Aster film fits more in the mold of A24‘s other artistic horror film, The Witch, where it uses its disturbing plot, outstanding performances and haunting images to skillfully send us inside a slow-burn descent into madness and hell, that too all weaved around the structure of a dark family drama. This is a modern day horror masterpiece.
The story follows Annie Graham (Toni Collette), a miniature artist who is in the middle of grieving the death of her mother, a private woman with whom she had a shaky relationship. Despite being effected with trauma her family faced, Annie is still trying to live a normal life with her supportive husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who carries out the mundane tasks of cooking and tries to keep the family together by any means possible. However, her state has also affected her relationship with her children, as Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the teenage daughter, is a loner, who just gorges on chocolate, sketches continuously and prefers to sleeps in the freezing tree house than her own bedroom, while her older son, Peter (Alex Wolff), is a pothead, and feels unloved by his mother, due to a sleep walking incident that happened years ago.
However, when another family tragedy strikes, Annie’s mental state is pushed further until she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), who introduces her into a world, which ends up revealing more about her family’s past. Things start to spiral out of control from here, in ways both expected and unexpected. Right from the first frames, talented first-time director Ari Aster grabs you with an intense and almost oppressive sense of psychological dread and never let’s go until the finale. There are images shown in this film that I’ve gotten nightmares about, and the thematic elements are more disturbing than I thought I would ever see in a film released in this day and age.
Sure, the film does have a haunted house and a demonic possession element but the draw of this masterpiece is seeing how this seemingly ordinary sane family discovers the horrifying reality they are in, as at its core, the film is about family and the secrets we keep from them. This film is a meditation on themes of grief, family, manipulation, and ultimately a lack of control. This isn’t a film like The Conjuring that gives you more than enough cues to be scared during certain parts of the film, instead, this film relies on your attention to detail and your willingness to be devoured by its sinister textures. One of the most shocking scenes in the film has no explicit supernatural cause but it left me gasping. There are plenty of shocks provoked by strange entities though and none of seem forced. While the horror is lurking off-screen which makes it even more effective, the attention is made towards the dysfunctional relationship within the Graham family. By exploring the idea of family-based mental illnesses, director Aster makes us question if this family truly has control over their horrible choices or if they have inherited something that denies them choice at all.
As the film goes deeper into the mentality of the Graham’s, psychosis and supernatural blur to challenge what is real or not. When supernatural horror kicks in, you already start to feel your sanity slipping away. Also director Ari Aster conjures multiple indelibly brutal moments of pure horror by deriving as much tension as possible from each scene. What I love so much about this film is it takes its time to introduce us to the characters – we get a sense of who the characters are within the first 20 minutes. It sets up the characters and develops them in a way that we don’t usually see in horror films. Usually, they cut straight to incessant, annoying jump scares and give no backstory or character development. The film makes you feel for the characters, so when you see their lives go awry, you truly feel it – psychologically and emotionally, because you really do care about these characters. Online I have read many comparing this film to Rosemary’s Baby, and I agree mostly with those comparisons.
However, I also see this film as a distant relation to the original Carrie. Both films put family drama at the forefront and milk every ounce of dread from the truly hideous realities of familial cohabitation for what it’s worth. What makes these films so stirring isn’t jump scares, special FX, or payoffs to every tense scene they present; it is instead fore fronting the all-to-real human tension and making the audience sit with it as uncomfortably as possible. The scenes that stick with me from Carrie aren’t just her supernatural revenge at the prom, but the abuse from her mother and the gut-punching shower scene that opens the film. It’s those moments of having to experience the very real ugliness of humanity that stir me and stay on my skin for days after seeing a film.
Where the film also shines is in its tone and atmosphere, which feels more like a true nightmare. There aren’t any big fantasy-like set pieces or even a Gothic house, but it takes the kind of household you might see from an upper class family and make it feel so uncomfortable and unfamiliar that moving forward is like taking a deep breath. Here, director Ari Aster also embraces a number of creepy thematic elements that all continuously add up in little ways. For example, Annie works with miniatures that unnervingly accurate recreations of everyday scenes in her life. They are so accurate in fact that there are times in the film where it isn’t clear if shots are of miniatures or of actual scenes and Charlie follows in her mother’s creative footsteps with her drawings and unsettling dolls that she makes from items she finds laying around.
Together the two show that they have a need to escape from reality, but it’s questionable whether their hobbies are healthy or not. These are just small examples though, but most of the details in the film are small. Things that would be upsetting just on their own, but combined together create a visceral reaction in the audience. Despite is positive qualities, the film does have some flaws as well. Like the film’s pacing can be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, I truly appreciate director Aster‘s intention to frame the film within the context of a slow-burn, tense family drama to promote the establishment of thoughtful character development and associated thinking, on the other hand, this pacing means that the horror elements often feel a bit rushed near the end. Also, this one is not a fun horror film like most, you can’t go in and expect to be thrilled. No, instead, the film is dark, depressing, disturbing, hard to watch and incredibly unbearable with its intensity levels. I did, at some points, especially during the traumatizing finale, want to leave the cinema because it simply became too much to handle.
The cast is also absolutely incredible here. Led by Toni Collette who gives an awards worthy performance here. Collette creates an emotionally complex character from her performance. Collette can go from showing complete denial to breaking down into complete despair after discovering something horrible. And then she will lash out with the fury of hell in a particular dinner scene that will not be forgotten. Once you see Anne’s psyche break, Collette convinces you her turn from being a skeptic to suddenly believing in the supernatural thanks to the desperation she expresses on her face. Alex Wolff, balances the stress of being a teenager and the dilemma that he’s facing. Milly Shapiro is unbelievably creepy from the moment she appears on screen. Her off-putting performance invokes a sense of anxiety that lingers throughout the film and she is a sharp contrast to the rest of her family. Gabriel Byrne also delivers a powerhouse performance that elicits a full range of emotions. As always Ann Dowd, also manages to leave her mark. This film doesn’t redefine horror, instead puts a wicked stamp of its own on the tropes of the genre. The film is a tremendous success, and a truly impressive feature-debut from director Ari Aster, as horror doesn’t get any better than this. On the whole, ‘Hereditary‘ is a stupendously solid art-house horror that is both gripping and terrifying.
Directed – Ari Aster
Rated – R
Run Time – 127 minutes