Cast: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne
Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
One thing that sets horror apart from other genres is its willingness to directly confront the most dreaded and tragic aspects of reality. It asks us to look into the darkest corners of our minds and to bear witness to those ideas that distress, disturb, and dishearten us the most. Nowadays it is only horror that consistently has us fear the worst case scenario only to then unravel it before our very eyes. The barn burns down, the mother kills her children, the villain wins, and all we can do is sit there helplessly and watch, unable to alter the outcome. One thing I’ve learnt in the last couple of years from watching films like The Witch and Get Out is that judging a horror movie by how much it ‘scares’ you is the most useless way to appreciate the genre, especially historically. True horror is about how horrified and discomforted you are by what is depicted, how much you fear for the fate of the characters, and how dark and oppressive the world where it all takes place feels. For all of these reasons, Hereditary is a great horror film.
The movie opens with a family struggling with a recent loss. Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has lost her mother and speaks at the funeral about the complicated feelings her death has inspired. We learn that the deceased Ellen was a difficult woman to have any kind of affectionate relationship with and that her influence has resulted in a family that is highly uncomfortable with emotional gestures and frank, open conversations about thoughts and feelings. Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is a well-meaning man who just wants everybody to be normal and happy, their son Peter (Alex Wolff) uses pot as an anaesthetic to the world around him, and their daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is a disturbed preteen girl with a haunting stare who is mostly quiet save the odd, unsettling click of her tongue (her performance is so intense and disconcerting, it’s almost impossible to believe that this same girl used to play Matilda on stage). And that’s about as much as I can reveal. The terror that befalls this family over the subsequent hours is so shocking and unbelievable that words cannot really do it justice; it is something that has to be lived.
Broadly speaking Hereditary is about a couple of different things. One recurring theme is this question of how much control we actually have over who we are and what we do. In the opening shot we are led into a dollhouse which takes the form of the family’s home, creating this ominous suggestion that there is some ethereal force manipulating the action. On one level this is to give the impression that something supernatural may be at work but, as the title suggests, much of this also has to do with our families and the demons that get passed along through the bloodline. Each member of this unfortunate family is severely dejected in their own way and one of the great fears the film is able to tap into is this overwhelming dread that being born into the wrong family means being doomed to live a life of inconsolable misery. The family in this case is one haunted by misfortune at every turn and all the more troubled and wretched for their shared inability to connect with one another on an emotional level.
Thus the film also delves into the subjects of trauma and grief and how people deal with them. With their deep-rooted anxieties and withdrawn temperaments, the family is plagued by sombre silences and melancholic dormancy brought about by a dreadful incapacity for vulnerability and openness with each other. Everybody tries to deal with their grief in their own incompatible ways and, as is often the case when a group of unhinged people in great pain remain in close proximity to one another, they lash out when confronted and forced to address the issues they are trying to hide from head on. There is a tragic irony in the way that these family members cannot help but bring out the worst in each other, leading them to hurt each other in fits of rage that are as painful to watch as even the most gruesome scenes (of which there are many). What makes Hereditary such a powerful movie is the way it is able to take what are already these intense, harrowing feelings and heighten them even further with the visceral, horrific nightmare that the characters are forced to live.
Hereditary is a difficult film to endure not because it is so violent and gruesome but because it is so harshly nihilistic. Anytime you find yourself sitting there in the dark wondering how things could possibly get worse for this desolate family, the movie finds a way and it is more terrible than you could have imagined. The Grahams are met with calamity after affliction after tragedy and the damage they suffer is so unbearable you can hardly bring yourself to look (but you also cannot look away). The horror comes not just from the sheer dreadfulness of what is happening but also from not quite knowing the nature of the threat lurking beneath it all or whose view we can trust. Although Annie is the character we follow the most closely and thus is the one whose feelings we understand the most clearly, her perception (as well as those of her husband and children) are so skewed by grief and pain and so deranged by uncertainty and anxiety that we never know for sure in any given moment who the voice of reason is and how much of what we see is actually happening. The film is less interested in scaring you than it is in breaking any sense of hope or certainty in your soul, and on that front it never lets up.
In making Hereditary, it’s quite clear that Aster was heavily influenced by an entire litany of horror classics including but not limited to Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Carrie and Don’t Look Now. All of these films feature horrific portrayals of parenthood and of violence inflicted on families in one way or another and are all masterclasses in how to establish a fearful atmosphere built on such basic feelings as trauma, insanity, paranoia, oppression, defilement, and misery and Aster is able to inject their many influences into his own work to create a worthy peer. But the film is equally indebted to such tragic family dramas as A Woman Under the Influence, Ordinary People, and Secrets & Lies, films about profoundly damaged people being forced to face their deepest torments and trepidations with elaborate and raw displays of emotion that can often be as psychologically horrific and violent as anything you’ve seen in a supernatural blood-and-gore fest. The most disturbing moments in Hereditary are not just those where images of such terrible brutality and devastation occur but also where family members exchange cold looks and cutting words, the kind that cannot be taken back and that leave deep, searing wounds and scars that may well never heal.
The film’s biggest problem is that it has occasional problems with subtlety. There are a few too many instances of hints being dropped that are a little too obvious, some moments are a little too on the nose and right at the very end there is a monologue a la Psycho in that it spends far too much time explaining what had already been made clear through inference and shedding light on what would probably have been better left off as ambiguous. Foreshadowing and exposition are fine if they’re done cleverly and with little attention to drawn to themselves, otherwise they become distracting and self-defeating. It’s not a fatal problem in a film as great as this one and it never got so bad that I was completely taken out of the movie but there were certainly occasions where I felt less would have been more for a film that is so largely fascinated by the unknown and inexplicable. Still, even then, Hereditary is an astonishing cinematic debut for Aster who displays remarkable confidence and uncanny skill in his ability to construct an overwhelming aura of dread with each waking second and to execute some truly horrifying moments without overreliance on jump scares and other cheap tricks.
Grounding the extraordinary horror with authentic, shattering performances is Aster’s cast, among whom there isn’t a single weak link. Collette is devastating as a mother who grows more and more desolate the more she suffers and loses her grip on reality. Byrne has a formidable presence as a father who finds himself at the end of his tether as he loses his ability to keep the peace. Wolff has a strong turn as a son trying to daze himself into a state of such numbness that he can no longer feel anything at all and Shapiro is way more sinister than any child has any right to be as a deeply demented daughter. Between them they bring so much of the humanity that makes the family scenes so distressing to watch. There’s a delicate balance that has to be maintained when depicting the kinds of individuals who share enough of a domestic sense of familiarity that they have to stick together but are so detached from one another that any interaction is going to be fraught with tension and this ensemble nails it. There is also a good supporting performance by Esteemed Character Actress Ann Dowd who plays exactly the kind of character you want her to play in this kind of movie.
I can see Hereditary becoming quite a polarising film, but then ambitious horror movies often are. The film is largely character driven and is more interested in finding its frightfulness in the emotional turmoil that they suffer than it is in the more traditional method of physical violence and deathly spectacle even though the film does include both. For those who watch horror movies for introspective depictions of insanity, despair, and the human condition, Hereditary offers plenty to chew on. For those who want mutilated corpses, burning flesh and bloody murder, there’s that as well. In theory this ought to make for a ‘one size fits all’ kind of situation except that fans of the former might not have the patience for the latter and vice versa. While I personally tend to favour emotional horror over physical, I am certainly not above the latter when it’s done well with purpose and Hereditary definitely fits the bill. There are certain images in this film that I have no doubt will haunt me for the rest of my days.