Horror is often viewed as a genre that exists only to entertain. Some audiences watching a horror movie only want a thrilling experience that allows them the fun of being scared with none of the actual danger that fear represents. Hereditary shirks that approach and delivers a horror experience that is genuinely uncomfortable. This isn’t a fun time at the movies.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary viewing. Because it is.
Hereditary centers around the Graham family shortly after the death of the family matriarch, Ellen. Her daughter Annie (Toni Collette) is trying to cope with the loss. She’s afraid of the mental disorders she’s possibly inherited from her mother and she’s starting to sense a presence in her old home. There’s also Steve (Gabriel Byrne), Annie’s sympathetic but frustrated husband, and their two children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro).
Much like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, Hereditary isn’t a film that is centered around big jump scares. Instead, it focuses on intensely emotional moments to drive home its feelings of terror and dread. This is a film where people reacting to a tragedy is as skin-crawling as a possible specter lurking in the shadows. A lot of credit goes to the superb cast, especially Toni Collette who gives a performance worthy of all the awards.
Another impressive element of Hereditary is its ability to present surreal imagery without coming across as pretentious or obtuse. For example, there are multiple times in the film where a strange light pulses across the screen. We aren’t told what this light is but we get a sense of its intention. It’s off-putting and bizarre but not in a non-sensical way. Because of this, it feels both creepy and strangely understandable.
And just wait until the movie ramps up as it heads towards its climax. The levels of hysteria and insanity in Hereditary reach such a fever pitch that you start to feel as if you’re going mad. Considering the film is using its story as a metaphor for mental illness — particularly dementia — this is an appropriate escalation. And boy, it works too well. By the end of the film, it feels like you’ve woken up from a nightmare.
Characters You Cry For
Honestly, the strongest part of Hereditary is its success in creating truly human characters. The Grahams feel achingly real. You’ve known these people and they are probably in your family. What’s great is that none of them are heroes or villains. They are just people. That means they have interesting qualities — Annie is an artist who makes miniature models — and believable flaws. There are moments of devastation and danger that will have you gasping for these people. That’s powerful.
And it bears repeating: the actors in this are at the top of their game. Toni Collette is doing work that most will pass off as pure histrionics. Those people would be missing how gut-wrenching her character’s perspective is during the film. Her reactions and fears come across at completely genuine. And young Alex Wolff has a difficult job in presented Peter as an apathetic teen whose relationship with his mother is more disturbing than we first know. Plus, young newcomer Milly Shapiro is the secret, sad heart of Hereditary and she demonstrates an emotional intelligence that few child actors ever reach.
Okay, so there is one thing about Hereditary that doesn’t quite click but it’s not possible to talk about in depth without spoilers. So, in the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, we’ll just say that Hereditary is very vague with its motives for most of the film. It’s towards the end that an explanation begins to take shape. And honestly, it feels somewhat out-of-place for the movie you’ve been watching.
It doesn’t sink the film at all but it does try and give a clear-cut reason for the supernatural shenanigans going on. The film works without this explanation and that’s a testament to its narrative strength. The ending actually makes things more confusing by trying to give a somewhat easier answer. It works but it’s not nearly as interesting as when things were kept unknown.
Is Hereditary Good?
Full of nightmarish imagery and emotional terror, Hereditary has the makings of a horror classic. There is true evil lurking inside this film. The acting is superb, the atmosphere is unsettling, and the tension is nigh unbearable. When it comes to making an unabashedly horrifying experience, writer/director Ari Aster has knocked it out of the park. See this immediately but don’t expect to sleep well that night.