Let’s just get this out on the table: I’m a big fan of horror movies. I spend an inordinate amount of time watching them, and the massive revival of the past few years driven by production houses like Blumhouse is making me a very happy man. Among all those films, the massively hyped new chiller Hereditary stands out for me as particularly confronting and unnerving. Will it make you shit your pants? No, I don’t think it will – but there’s a lot going on in this film that will stick with you for a long time.
Hereditary, the debut directorial effort from Ari Aster, has been the subject of huge buzz since it debuted at Sundance, with many reviewers lauding it as the “scariest movie of all time” and “traumatic”, which are all very intense ways of describing a movie. It lives up to that hype in ways you might not expect: this isn’t a rollercoaster jump scare ride, it’s a queasy, uncomfortable deconstruction of family dynamics and grief nestled between some genuinely masterful, terrifying imagery.
It’s best to go into this movie relatively blind, but I’ll sketch out the margins for you. Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, whose mother has recently died after what is implied to be a relatively long decline in health. Annie is caught up in a maelstrom of mixed emotions: she didn’t particularly like her mother, who was cold, distant and mysterious, and her family history is generally one of mental illness, suicide and death. She’s struggling with a weird absence of emotion around her mother’s death, while she is comforted by her psychiatrist husband (Gabriel Byrne), moody teenage son (Alex Wolff), and odd younger daughter (Milly Shapiro, in what may be the most unsettling use of the ‘creepy child’ trope in a while).
Annie is an artist, and she specialises in creating haunting miniatures of events in her life. The film orients itself visually around her creepy little dioramas, and the big empty house she lives in with her family is shot like a dollhouse: carefully arranged props and sets; big sweeping shots; disjointed wide angles. It makes everything look fake, and – yes – really fucking creepy.
Collette is incredible in this role, playing a kind of amplified, demented version of her role in The Sixth Sense years ago. Movies like this ride hard on the lack of clarity as to whether any of this supernatural mumbo jumbo is really happening, and Collette absolutely sells it in a way that feels fresh and real.
What ensues occupies that uneasy space between psychological drama and ghost story, bolstered by Aster’s uncannily great ability to worm the movie under the audience’s skin. Horror is basically the practical application of the science of scaring people, and Aster is unfairly good at it considering this is his first feature. It’s definitely in the recent mode established by movies like The Conjuring – keeping the jumps and explicit frights relatively infrequent, while establishing an incredibly tense atmosphere that leaves you feeling sick anticipating what will happen next.
Good horror is usually anchored in some kind of abstract real-life fear. In Hereditary‘s case, as suggested by its title, it’s the fear of inheriting something unknowable bad from your family. Are we really free, or are we bound by the same curses which afflict our parents and grandparents? If someone in our family struggles with mental illness or delusion, are we doomed to as well? This movie works because even without the horror elements it still functions very well as an honest portrait of of a dysfunctional family, and it has a very real and confronting understanding of a family uneasily exploring the contours of grief.
When the film really kicks into gear towards the third and the scares become more frequent, it becomes a little less surreal and dramatically challenging and generally more conventional, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. To compensate, it also cranks it up in the disturbing imagery department. Very minor spoiler alert: if you’re spooked by deformed nude ghosts leering obscenely from the shadows, you’re going to have a time with this.
So that’s that. If you’re looking for a non-stop thrill ride, you’re not going to find it in Hereditary. If you’re looking for something that’ll sink its hooks into you from the first few minutes and keep you feeling queasy for two hours – you’ve found it.
Hereditary lands in cinemas on Thursday.