The following is a review of Hereditary — Directed by Ari Aster.
You can always tell a horror movie is going to be the talk of the town once, at least, one of the three following things happen: when it receives critical acclaim, when critics are championing a central performance in the film, and when critics, fans, or filmmakers say or imply that the film isn’t really a horror movie. All three things happened with Hereditary.
For some reason, the horror genre has become a bad word in marketing. Maybe people’s insistence on not calling these types of films ‘horror films’ is for the purpose of warning audiences that it isn’t a slasher film, but more something in the vein of It Follows, The Witch, or It Comes at Night — films that were all critical darlings, but that found little support with general audiences.
Whatever the reason, Hereditary absolutely does justify being classified as a horror movie. It is the most unsettling film I’ve seen in theaters. That said, your mileage may vary. The audience that I saw it with were not all on the same page. I heard nervous laughter, snickering, terrified audience members crying, and, yes, there were walkouts. But, for this reviewer, Hereditary worked.
When the first bits and pieces of critical reception appeared online, I noted that this was a film I needed to keep an eye on. Conversely, when I saw the first trailer, I knew that this was a movie I needed to know practically nothing about, which is why I ended up removing myself from the conversation by muting the film’s title on Twitter. So, I am going to stay as spoiler-free as possible in this review, so as to not ruin the experience for audiences.
Hereditary opens with a funeral. Annie Graham (played by Toni Collette) has lost her mother, who was only really close — inappropriately close — with her granddaughter Charlie (played by Milly Shapiro). But while Charlie is in mourning, the majority of the Graham household is mostly unaffected.
Sure, Annie goes to a support group, but more so because she is suffering from guilt than anything else. Steve (played by Gabriel Byrne), Annie’s husband, is doing his best to keep his family unaffected by the events that have caused them heartache, and Peter, Charlie’s older brother, is entirely unaffected by his grandmother’s passing.
But Charlie really isn’t doing well — she sees things, notices odd reactions from strangers that may or may not be real, and she, more than anything else, is a loner who, in having gotten close to her grandmother, stands out from the rest of the Graham family. Also, in spite of everything, Annie is haunted by her mother’s memory. The influence of Annie’s mother looms large in Hereditary, and her fascinations send shockwaves through the unstable Graham family in Ari Aster’s Hereditary. And that is as far as I am willing to go in explaining the premise.
What I can say is that Hereditary is a film about inheritance, grief, and guilt, which, much like films like The Babadook, tells a story full of supernatural elements for the purpose of actually telling a human story. It also has a first-time feature film director that dares to ask what The Conjuring would look like if it were an A24 film. Basically, it ends up being comprised of equal parts Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Conjuring, The Wicker Man, and, from a certain point of view, Paranormal Activity 3.
Hereditary is both very much a patient and atmospheric artsy horror film, but also a horror film with somewhat of a cliché plot development revelation towards the end. Whether or not you accept that part of the film, and the extent to which you are willing to go along with this evolution of the plot, will decide whether or not you buy the horrifying and crazy ending sequences. But it is of paramount importance that you understand, and I emphasize, that Hereditary absolutely is a patient build-up that culminates in a boiling point that is tough to really describe, for me. Towards the end, Hereditary is batshit crazy, and that is meant as a compliment.
Hereditary is creepy when it needs to be, and it is absolutely horrifying in its most mind-boggling moments. It achieves all of this thanks to impressively patient camera movements and unforgettable startling and creepy sounds, as well as some of the most terrifying and unsettling horror movie images I’ve seen in years, which are all brilliantly conjured up by Ari Aster in his impressive debut.
While their performances aren’t going to be the talk of the town at any time this year, I thought it was a nice surprise to see the always underrated television star Ann Dowd make an important appearance, and I thought both Gabriel Byrne and Milly Shapiro did what was asked of them. Alex Wolff gives a subdued or repressed but tortured performance that I thought really worked for the film.
But it is the tour de force performance delivered by Toni Collette that people will remember this film for. I don’t know where Collette has gone to be able to do what she does in this film, and a part of me doesn’t want to know either. One thing is for sure, though, she taps into something powerful here to deliver one of the most effective performances of the year.
Sure, perhaps it was a little bit too long and long-winded, and, yeah, I would say that the very last scene could have been cut. But those are minor problems when you look at the big picture. It is a very strong horror film, and I would also say that a horror movie’s images haven’t messed with my mind this much since the first The Conjuring film. As a feature film debut, it is absolutely astounding. It is one of the most confident debut films I’ve seen.
9 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen