We open to the nerve jangling sound of discordant strings, immediately sensing that something is not right. After a brief newspaper obituary appears on screen, its everyday nature coupled with the foreboding music helping to offset even more, we cut to what looks to be a dolls house. As the camera moves ever closer to one of the rooms inside it is clear to us that this is no mere child’s plaything, there is a detail to it that goes beyond mere imagination. Before the camera can completely collide into its seemingly created walls, the door opens. The model is now no longer so, but has morphed into the house Hereditary centres itself in. It is a bravura opening and a marked statement of intent. Ari Aster’s staggeringly assured directorial debut trades in some very familiar horror tropes. Like all the classics; The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby etc, Hereditary deals with the family unit under great duress, not just from supernatural sources but from within. We also get an extra dollop of mysterious cults, demon worshipping and that old chestnut the seance for added familiarity. But, as seen in that opening sequence, the trick here is all about the execution.
Hereditary focuses on the Graham family. After their live-in matriarch passes, the woman mentioned in that opening obituary, her daughter Annie (Toni Collette) struggles to cope with the feelings this has awakened in her. Notably though it affects the relationship she has with her youngest, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). A distant strangely intense girl, given added creepiness from Shapiro’s measured detached performance. It soon becomes apparent that Charlie’s relationship with her Grandma may have been a little darker than regular Nanny-Grand-Daughter couplings go. Not only does she have to deal with that but Annie must also contend with her equally troubled teenage son Peter. Dishevelled in appearance, he spends his nights smoking weed and growling at his mother, hints at a deeper reasoning for their frosty relationship are there before revealing themselves at one of the most awkward and emotionally shattering dinnertime conversations this side of American Beauty. Nat Wolff gives a barnstorming performance in a role that requires rivers of pain, fear and stillness. His reaction to a shocking moment of violence in the films early stages is a riveting cavalcade of emotions.
Holding all this together as best as he can is Gabriel Byrne’s Steve. A calming man, Byrne using his gentle voice and natural decency to its fullest tilt. Witnessing the tragedies that befall his family begins to overwhelm his strength with Byrne subtly elevating his pitch so that we can truly see a man who has lost all control of those he loves. Collette is the one who will no doubt find herself key amongst this films many praises. Always an underrated actress, she is a force of nature here. Annie is a woman haunted, one who seeks catharsis in her pain by designing dioramas portraying key events of her life, hence the model house we see in the opening, and which in some unexplained way actually earn her money (Can’t see it as an exhibit I would wish to visit). Hereditary, as the title suggests, is about the sins we inherit from our parents. Annie’s tormented youth at the hands of her monstrous mother, giving credence to how she then treats her own kin. Especially in regards to Peter, their aggression (and the steadily building supernatural aura) towards one another resulting in honest revelations that shock way more than any horror scare. Collette wears all this anguish in her beautifully contorted expressions. There are times she reaches peak horror hysteria but she never lets it overwhelm the nuances of her role. It’s a pity Oscar always overlooks horror as she’d be a shoo-in.
Ah yes, the horror. Well despite what the marketing may say, and the pre-release hype, this is not the scariest film ever made. In fact the publicity trumping that misinterpretation does the film a disservice. You come at it expecting jump scares and thrill rides, but Hereditary is contemplative horror material. It is one that seeps into your very bones. Don’t get me wrong there are a couple of big scares to be had, but Aster never captions them with the usual blast of score to signal it’s time to jump. He lets the moment breathe, washing over you with unbearable tension. The brash pulsating score works in beautiful tandem with subtle sound cues and performance to foster a mood of atmospheric terror. Great horror films are the ones that leave you feeling troubled, creeping into your mind with fear that these sorts of terrors are waiting for you back home. Aster probes his camera deep into haunted faces but never busies himself with overt trickery, favouring static frames and crisp cinematography. Even as the third act digresses into rampant craziness Aster maintains a steady hand, relying on his terrific performers to convey the terror.
There is very little that does not work in Hereditary, perhaps a smidgen too long maybe and the horror tropes it does lean into won’t exactly hype those looking for newer stories, but you’ll be too busy gripping your armrest to notice. If there is one thing I fear the most in horrors is the whole cold staring creepy figure standing in the corner scare, and Hereditary has plenty of those, but it is the themes that truly make it click. The sins of the parents, how we can never fully reveal ourselves to our children despite the catharsis it may bring, or the ever conflicting nature of grief, it is there and then some in Hereditary. It is a work of deeply profound nightmares. Ari Aster confirming himself as a director to watch, and possibly a man to hide from!
Verdict: Avoid the “Scariest Movie ever made” hype and you’ll find a film swimming in twisted seething menace, married to outstanding performances and supremely confident direction. A modern horror classic.