Every once in a blue moon, there comes a horror movie that’s legitimately capital-T terrifying. One that’ll cause your eyes to dart around the dark stillness of the theater at the smallest creak. One that’ll hitchhike a ride home with you to invade your dreams; an unabortable mental pregnancy. One whose delirious imagery will burn into your cranium as if doused in paint thinner and struck by a match. I am happy to report that A24’s Hereditary, dear readers, is just that kind of movie. It’ll take your damn head off.
After breaking out to stunning reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Hereditary quickly scaled to the tippiest top of my must-see list, arthouse horror being a genre that consistently checks all the boxes for this scare-happy critic. In the age of tentpole blockbusters assaulting our cineplexes week in and week out, the franchise film movement has lead to conformity en masse, a sense of stale formula sameness applied liberally to each new would-be contender for the box office throne.
As if in response, the horror genre has proved the ability to not only draw huge financial windfalls (take this year’s A Quiet Place, for example, which made over $300M domestically on a modest $17M) but to continue classical traditions of filmmaking, smuggling artful minimalism, fantastic performances, and that most underrated of cinema’s abilities – the ability to create tension out of thin air.
Suspense in film today is a dying breed. Think for a moment of the most successful movies at the theaters right now – the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which at every avenue appear to undercut their own stakes. Moments of tension are truncated with a lightning speed throwaway quip so that the audience never linger in that uncomfortable zone. Ping-ponging between spectacle and throwaway humor is a trend that dominates today’s top dollar-makers whereas the arthouse horror genre is one of the few that is willing to sit on their cards, to hold tight as tension mounts and suspense builds, denying us of the pressure release we so badly crave.
When you conjure what affected you most about a horror movie, you typically tend to think of those moments where, after an undying period of building pressure, the release valve is kicked and something “scary” happens. The music has crescendoed to dizzying heights and suddenly a hulking mass stands in the door frame. Or better yet, it does not. Great horror engages as much (if not more so) in restraint than in reveal and Hereditary is, among many other things, a masterclass in restraint.
This is a film that pivots from quiet grief to sickening, nightmare-fuel imagery without ever losing an inch of ground-building tension because it has a preternatural knowledge of what to deliver, and when. For a movie that stretches beyond the two-hour mark, there’s not a wasted breathe – each and every shot layered into the unwinding mysteries lingering at the rotten core of Hereditary – and restraint is never sacrificed for the reveal. The two work harmoniously, in tandem to unsettle, provoke, and, ultimately, scare.
Written and directed by Ari Aster, Hereditary is the kind of feature debut that most filmmakers dream of making. Shockingly competent from pretty much every aspect – the electrifying shot composure, the brilliant performances, the gnarly, characteresque production design – this feature directorial debut begins as a study of grief before launching into a nightmarish descent into the breaking fault lines of a fractured family.
Toni Collette leads the feature as Annie Graham, a troubled mother of two with a family history of mental disease. With the passing of her long-ill mother, the family is thrown into a state of imbalance, trying to square their competing feelings of sorrow and relief. Milly Shapiro plays her misfitted daughter, an unfortunate looking loner with some distasteful predilections (cutting up dead animals being a notable one), in such a haunting manner that despite not saying much, she makes a powerful impression that casts a long shadow over the film.
As if genetic predisposed for a sour relationship, the mother and daughter fail to connect on critical levels while stoner son Peter (played with great, tragic aplomb by Alex Wolff) tries to live as independently from his family as possible. Always fantastic, Ann Dowd joins the horror as a supportive new friend with a dark link to powers that go beyond the realm of our world. The reliable Gabriel Byrne rounds out the cast as the reasonable but skeptical patriarch Steven, casting many a side glance as the family considers supernatural means to resolving their trauma.
Aster milks his small cast for everything they’ve got, leaning on their ability to utterly consume the screen for damn near every second they appear, delivering a horror movie that’s modest in stature but tsunami-sized in impact. For her part, Collette is nothing shy of fucking fantastic. Contorting her face into twisted shapes of dread, anguish, and soulless sneers, she celebrates the spectrum of physical performance while grounding it all in legitimate character work. In a role that’s slightly reminiscent of Shelley Duvall’s disturbed, disturbing display in Shining, Collette goes to hellish places; howling in sorrowful pain, consumed by a conflagration of anger, lashing out at her loved ones with the chill of a winter’s night. From moments of all-consuming grief to erratic, mental enthusiasm, the stand-up-and-clap role functions as a showcase for Collette’s diverse, monstrous talents as an actress. Her performance is nothing short of traumatizing, as is the film.
The scares connect because the underlying emotions are relatable and real. As Annie untethers further from the realm of normalcy, her children weeping in terror, begging her to stop the freefall, chills raced down my spine because of how honest the emotional value of the scene-work was and so much of that earnestness is fastened by Collette’s unbelievably committed performance. Please give her all the awards.
Legitimately terrifying, Hereditary executes hairpin turns in such adroit fashion – the marketing intentionally throwing viewers off the scent of the film’s true nature – that going in completely cold should be considered a sacred requirement. As if by osmosis, Aster’s terror will seep into you and deny at the very least a few minutes of easy sleep, the meaty mouthfeel of his film not a taste easily washed away. So be warned. But also be very excited. This movie is everything.
CONCLUSION: Ranking up their with the great contemporary horror movies of our time, ‘Hereditary’ delivers the scares of ‘The Conjuring’ with the atmospherics of ‘The Shining’ all matched to a jaw-droppingly stunning performance from Toni Collette. Now go scare the shit out of yourself with it.