Hereditary is a superbly well-crafted horror that conjures both realistic and fantastic feelings of terror in the same breath. No frame of the experience is wasted and with a tour-de-force performance from Toni Collette and impeccable direction from Ari Aster, there’s no way to escape without feeling like a piece of you has been chipped away. But the absolute best thing is that as soon as the credits started rolling, I wanted to hand Aster the chisel and go through it all over again.
One of the real joys of getting completely bowled over by the film is predicated by not knowing much going in – so you shouldn’t be sleuthing for that many plot details on this side of seeing it. Collette stars as Annie Graham, a woman more disorientated than grief-stricken at the recent passing of her mother, who she knew very little about during her life. Annie’s main concerns are the miniature art show she’s preparing for and the wellbeing of her two children, who it’s clear she worries about after revealing early on their family history of mental health struggles. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is a great calming presence, very supportive of his wife and seems to be a good caretaker for his family as well – your faith and empathy in Steve is also a great marker for how tense you’ll be throughout the film. Ever the realist, if you think Steve’s constantly got the answer then your heart won’t skip a beat, but if you’re screaming internally for the man to STFU and let his wife speak then you’ll be right where Aster wants you on the edge of your seat.
Their two children played by newcomer Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff are brilliantly unnerving and anxious to watch respectively. More than any other family member, it was Charlie (Shapiro) who shared the most with her late grandmother, and her onset of disturbing behavior in the first act of the film appears to be a ticking time bomb. At the other end of the “clichéd children in horror scale” we move from creepy little girl all the way up to horny teenage boy in Peter (Wolff), who’s just your average teenager concerned more with the pretty girl in his class than any attention he should be giving to a dead grandmother he barely knew.
Without spoiling anything, Hereditary doesn’t take long before throwing one of the best curve balls I’ve been witness to in a while, and it’s miraculous that despite a relatively heavy marketing push heralding one of the scariest films in years, I still didn’t realise what I was getting myself into until 40 minutes in. When shit gets real, the pressure cooker hits a boiling point that even when it does choose to slow and cool down, still had me in awe at what was happening. And I should add, the “clichéd children in horror scale” shouldn’t be considered a dig when the film uses any horror staples it touches to tremendous effect: turning all potential jump-scares and clichés on their head to deliver what feels like a back-to-basics 70s flick but one grounded in the emotional and mental preoccupations of the noughties.
It’s a remarkable feat for a horror film to entice you and traumatise you in equal measure. There are moments that had me genuinely hiding behind my jacket in the theatre but many many more that had my eyes wide open willing the next surprise to jump out. This is a supernatural horror that manages to leave an indelible mark not with its villain, but with its focus on raw human emotion and trauma – all thanks to a career best performance from Toni Collette. Any explanation of an otherworldly terror or villain is also handled perfectly, leaving you wanting more but with just enough to understand what’s happening. And really, when has a horror film ever been made better with an extra 20 minutes of exposition? You’re on the exact same ride as the Graham family and Hereditary benefits from its narrower scale and point-of-view.
It’s impossible to wrap up a review of the film without also celebrating Ann Dowd’s performance as a supporting player in the Graham’s rollercoaster of tragedy. Made famous recently for her menacing roles in The Leftovers and current hit The Handmaids Tale, her role here as a mysterious Samaritan just adds even more to the head games Aster is playing throughout. This is a film that will have you desperate to know what’s around the next corner, but fully aware it could leave you cowering in a ball. See it with someone you love, see it with someone you hate, but do yourself a favour and just see it.