A24’s Hereditary shows a troubled family in grief and from there plants seeds of bone-chilling horror that will grow into a classic.
Forget the Bluths of Arrested Development or the Rayburns of Bloodline or any cinematic dysfunctional family you know. The Grahams of A24’s Hereditary put them all to bed and scare the living shit out them while they try to sleep. Whatever it is that runs in their family – something that writer director Ari Aster wisely never identifies – runs wild through every member with terrifying consequences. What we’re dealing with is not just the scariest movie of the year, or one of the best movies of the year (it is, by the way) but one of the freshest additions ever to the horror genre. Bookend it with The Exorcist and The Shining, movies that latch themselves into your brain long after you’ve left the theater. You’ll never click your tongue or look at grandma’s old pictures the same again.
Annie Graham (played excellently by Toni Collette) attends her mother’s funeral with her husband (Gabriel Byre) and her children Peter (Alex Wolff, bravo) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro, holy shit.) The movie begins with her mother Ellen’s plain-Jane obituary and lets you descend beneath its surface into the horrors of the Graham family. “My mother had private rituals, private friends, and private anxieties,” Annie eulogizes. She admits she was estranged from her mother, whom Annie blames for the suicides of her father and brother, and whom Annie kept away from her son Peter but felt guilty enough to let her spend time with her youngest Charlie (remember that.) The deeper we dive into the Grahams after the funeral, the more we learn the fucked up legacy of granny Ellen that literally goes beyond the grave. There is more I could reveal without venturing into spoiler territory but you ought to go into Hereditary as cold as possible. The trailers strategically keep it vague to keep you off the scent, which is difficult to track. Even as you’re watching the film it keeps its secrets from you until the very end. Hereditary offers you an experience as genuinely terrifying as you could hope from a movie. Don’t rob yourself of it for spoilers.
Annie’s artwork – miniature models of households that are creepily lifelike – adds layers to the symbolism of a family’s home being perverted to one’s liking, giving you a sense that something evil is manipulating this already traumatized family. Aster cleverly inserts Annie’s miniatures throughout, planting the imagery of a family way out of balance. Also in tandem with this is the theme of mental illness which is prevalent in Hereditary, making you wonder if it’s something the Graham family just can’t overcome. “Pawns in a horrible, hopeless machine.”
The performances are terrific, especially considering what is expected of them. Toni Collette’s Annie descends into unspeakable layers of grief and torment and she nails every tragic nuance. Don’t be too surprised if she gets some buzz around award season – she’s that good here. About ninety percent of Alex Wolff’s performance is strictly his facial reactions/realizations of what is happening around and to him. He tells the whole story incredibly with just his face, most notably that scene – in a film with at least three scenes that can compete for the top what-the-fuck moment – where he sits in several seconds of excruciating silence after another familial horror has just struck. You’ll know it when you see it. Milly Shapiro haunts us all as Charlie. Her seemingly disconnected stare and cutting of bird’s heads are things we couldn’t pray to understand until the third act. Her performance leaves you simultaneously terrified and sympathetic for her. Poor Gabriel Byrne plays a husband and father who is helpless to stop his family from slipping further into his family’s inherited madness, wishing like hell he could put a stop to it. He inserts the brief glimpses of normalcy to clue the audience in on how not normal his family’s behavior is.
Hereditary preys on so many fears, you really have no place in the theater in which you can take solace. Shape-shifting darkness, supernatural phenomenon, bugged-out kids, secluded woods, vengeful mothers, headless corpses, and the suffocating silence that bridges them all together – it’s all there to ensure you have no way out. Many of the haunts are visible enough, but remain in the shadows as unknown entities, letting your fears grow, refusing to let you breathe easily. Aster’s direction, Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography, and Colin Stetson’s otherworldly score are a perfect horror marriage in completing the feeling of total displacement. But one of the scariest aspects of Hereditary is not seen or heard, but viscerally felt by the characters: what you inherit from your parents and grandparents. How helpless it is to have certain ailments or traits passed along to without your consent, how they can wreak havoc on your mental well-being, and, as Hereditary illustrates, how inevitable it all is. Now that’s horror. Thanks, grandma.
Why you should see this movie: A24, the studio behind Lady Bird and Oscar winner for Best Picture Moonlight, hits another home run. You won’t have to wait for the next six months to pass by: this is the scariest movie of 2018 – and one of the best. And none of it is cheap with its pop scares; it’s smart and methodical where every gasp and scream it extracts from the audience is earned. Horror genre aside, Hereditary is a tremendous showcase of the film medium: images, sound, performances, writing, directing, all in unison, all in cohesion. Any confusion you may feel toward its outcome is entirely intentional. You are supposed to feel uncomfortable and uncertain. If you consider yourself a horror movie junkie, consider this a necessary addition to your horror lexicon. If you’re not, you may want to sit it out. See it during the day to give yourself some time to readjust before it gets dark.