A24, the production company that can seemingly do no wrong lately, are back with another unique horror that has gripped the world. Following successful releases like ‘The VVitch’ and ‘It Comes At Night’, ‘Hereditary’ arrives with hype and then some. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival back in January and has since received near universal acclaim, with its marketing proudly and consistently quoting reviews saying ‘Hereditary’ is the new ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ Whether Aster’s film has the staying power of those two films remains to be seen, but ‘Hereditary’ is one hell of a film.
Annie Graham (Collette), a miniaturist artist who recreates moments from her own life in dollhouse form, suffers the loss of her mother, Ellen, and the film follows her and her family picking up the pieces left by Ellen’s departure. What follows is far darker than expected for Annie and co, as the legacy left by her mother appears to have left a strange curse on the family.
I can’t say more than that criminally short summary will let me. ‘Hereditary’, first and foremost, deserves to be seen as blind as possible. Thankfully, the trailers give nothing away about what you’re going to experience, but you should go in with only the barest knowledge of the plot. What unfolds is an experience like no other that still revolves around my brain days later.
‘Hereditary’ is the sort of film that relies on its actors. Owing to its fairly extreme concept, it requires total commitment at playing the film out as it was intended, letting debut director Ari Aster’s vision appear on screen as intended. Thankfully, Toni Collette and her co-stars are entirely up to the challenge, and more. The performances in ‘Hereditary’ are some of the best of the year, particularly from show-stealer Toni Collette.
Annie Graham feels real. Suffering the death of her mother, and the subsequent monologue at the funeral, you begin to see and feel the pain of her loss. But, it’s not the conventional loss you might expect. As they return to the house, Annie asks her husband “should I be more upset?” It’s a subtle line, but it’s filled with nuance because of their difficult relationship that Annie delves into as she attends a bereavement support group. They had a tumultuous relationship for years, one that linked directly to Annie’s children, Peter and 13-year-old Charlie (played excellently by Milly Shapiro), but she was still her mother. In one stellar monologue at one of the support group meetings – a monologue that you should pay attention to as it holds many keys to the film’s ending – Annie outlines their past conflicts and confrontations that build into who Annie becomes as the film progresses.
Collette has gone to great lengths to understand both Annie and Annie’s mother to create a performance that, if everything goes to plan, will surely earn her an Oscar nomination in January. At the dinner scene (yes, the dinner scene), the emotions of the previous hour or so on film come to ahead in a stunning confrontation between Annie and Peter, that honestly borders on the blackest edges of comedy. Annie’s frustrations all come to the fore and she struggles to get her words out, calling Peter a “little shit” and telling him to stop having “that face on your face.” In a lesser film, this scene would have dropped like a stone, but the film does a masterful job of establishing its characters, so this scene has a raw, emotional power not seen in horror films for years. Collette, for lack of a better term, nails this performance. She takes Annie by the scruff of her neck and makes her her own. It’s a performance that is going to be connected with Collette for the rest of her career, a role that no one else could have played.
Here’s a fact that I still can’t believe – ‘Hereditary’ is Ari Aster’s debut feature. Aster has been making short films since 2011, but the 30-year-old made the leap to filmmaking as a writer-director with ‘Hereditary’, and it’s entirely evident that this is Aster’s vision from beginning to end. The film has a level of confidence about it that I haven’t seen in 20-year directorial veterans. Consistently using tracking shots of his characters as they move around the Graham house, frequently losing track of them around corners owing to the slow speed of each tracking shot, you turn every corner genuinely not sure what you’re going to see. ‘Hereditary’ has shocks and surprises abound, and Aster appears to know exactly what each moment needs. Slow tracking shots, jarring cuts to horrifying images, following the eyeline of a character to offscreen horrors. Aster guides the gaze of his audience to exactly what he needs them to see, but maybe not what the audience wants to see.
‘Hereditary’ has countless scenes of genuinely unspeakable horror. Two spring to mind, but I could mention five or six here. The first is the film’s pivotal scene, the scene that truly launches the film from Act One into Act Two with a frightening, disturbing and upsetting sequence. We know what’s happened, we know how it happened, but Aster withholds showing the immediate aftermath by following a character as they come to terms with what happened, and the camera remains locked on their face or body for the entirety of this scene. Then, when the moment happens, we have one of those aforementioned jarring cuts, accompanied by equally horrifying sounds but horrifying for a whole host of different reasons, as the aftermath is finally revealed. I haven’t seen an audience react so viscerally to a moment for years. There were gasps, screams, elongated “no”’s, and loud “fuck off”’s. I couldn’t speak, I was near enough paralysed to my seat, both needing to look away but unable to take my eyes off the screen, and as I’m reliably informed by my friend, I started to curl up into a ball, a ball that tightened and tightened as the film reached its climax.
The second scene is far harder to describe. I’m sure everyone who has seen ‘Hereditary ‘knows which scene I’m referring to even without saying which it is. This scene is spine-tinglingly scary, causing that ball I was in to become entirely spherical as I seized up in paralysis. What helps it is that this is a scare I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever experienced before. It’s not an immediate scare, there are no sound cues and no cuts; the camera stays locked on a scene and watches it unfold, and the horror reveals itself at your own pace. Some of my audience saw it immediately, others didn’t see it at all, while I saw it after an easy 15+ seconds of it being on screen. I’m wholly serious when I say I’ve never experienced a moment like this in any film before now. It’s a scene that uses every element of filmmaking at once and trusts its audience to engage with the images presented to them. It’s nothing short of masterful and utterly genius.
‘Hereditary’ is an experience. It’s an experience I haven’t had at the cinema for years, feeling a need to run away from the film and never look back while also being stuck to my seat, unable to move due to absolute, unabated fear. It’s a film that is going to divide people massively – walking out of the cinema, some hated it, some were unsure of it, and some loved it. I don’t think the pre-film comparisons to ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ did it any favours. You shouldn’t go into the film with these expectations, nor should you go into it expecting a conventional horror film. It’s a family tragedy story under the umbrella of a horror film. The tragedy only adds to the horror as the film escalates to its finale, and believe me, it escalates. The ending is going to cause discussion for years to come, with revelations coming out about the film on a near-daily basis. I and some of the Jumpcut team were up until stupid o’clock in the morning discussing aspects of the film that only heightened the experience and made me love it even more.
‘Hereditary’ requires your patience and your commitment to let the story unfold at the pace it does. Stick with it. The end result is immensely satisfying, terrifying, and completely brilliant.
Directed by: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne