The finest horror film ever made.
The aura around the release of Hereditary earlier this year was a very curious beast. Billboards and posters were emblazoned with a very dangerous quote, “This generation’s The Exorcist”. A comparison to what is, widely regarded as, the scariest and straight-up best horror film of all time may seem like a glowing comparison, but in reality, it’s a detrimentally effective piece of criticism that can rub people off the wrong way. For instance, Mark Kermode, who famously worships the aforementioned classic, spoke of his scepticism in the time before Hereditary’s release, because of this very ‘recommendation’. On the other end of the spectrum, it can lead people to formulate a spectacular vision of the film in their heads, which inevitably, isn’t given life when they finally see it.
Funnily enough, the film turned out to be one of the more polarising events of the year. Not quite on the same level as Aronofsky’s mother! (a neglected masterwork), but divisive nonetheless. But going in without any scepticism, no knowledge of the film’s plot, no prior viewing of any footage whatsoever after avoiding trailers, I found Hereditary to be a tirelessly demented, incredibly traumatic, breath-taking trip into the darkest depths of psychological, family horror. What’s more impressive is it comes from Ari Aster in his feature film debut – although he’s responsible for some really terrific short film work, namely, the horrifying The Strange Thing About The Johnsons.
The plot is this: when the Graham family matriarch passes away, her daughter’s family begin to discover the truth about their disturbing and, potentially, harmful ancestry.
The daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), isn’t hit too hard by the death of her mother (“Should I be more sad?” she asks). It’s made very clear from the offset that their relationship wasn’t exactly hugs and kisses, with Annie saying they were estranged for a long time (but that she still ‘loved’ her). Living in a Grand Designs-esque home in a quaint wooded area, she focuses her time on constructing miniature portraits of life for an art-exhibition – a concept exploited awfully well in a fabulously immersive, trippy opening shot. Supporting her endlessly is her devoted husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who is also father to son Peter (Alex Wolff), a typical pothead teen, and introverted daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The dynamics in the family are set up immediately, particularly with Charlie. She doesn’t feel like she fits in with the family, and misses her Gran. This frustrates Annie, feeling like she can’t be a proper mother to her daughter.
But there’s far more at play here than family therapy. Without venturing into spoiler territory, Annie’s late mother was no innocent soul, perhaps fond of a dangerous séance every now and again. Her death brings all sorts of tragedy to the Graham family, reoccurring strange incidents and flat-out terrifying apparitions (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene in which Annie sees her smiling mother in the dark corner of a room is pure nightmare fuel).
Collette is in absolutely remarkable form here. Embracing the sort of desperation we saw her brilliantly portray in The Sixth Sense, her heartache and struggles throughout the terror are never in doubt. It’s a vastly versatile role that requires the transformative ability to move, grip and unnerve – Collette succeeds and then some. The highlight of the piece is a seismic dinner confrontation, as Collette towers over Wolff, piercing through him with a fierce lecture on accountability. With awards season fast approaching, she would be a more-than-deserved winner of the golden gong come the big night. Byrne is a sound mind amidst the madness, optimistic and reassuring but also subtly aware of the peculiarities growing around him. His calm, collected and admirable take puts him high on the list of ‘Underrated Movie Dads’ for years to come.
Their kids carry the weight of much of the plot, with Wolff’s Peter evolving into a much bigger player as the madness escalates, and by golly, be prepared for a paralysing car ride. Shapiro as Charlie is the real star though. Haunting behind the eyes, yet carrying a painful vulnerability, her incessant mouth clicking and dead stare gets under your skin. The cast work together terrifically, coming across like any normal, turbulent family – only with more supernatural peskiness.
Rather wisely, Aster avoids the tendency to indulge in ghost train frights. Ordinarily, you may expect one or two, but there’s none to be found here. Instead, the up-and-coming filmmaker employs a ruthless atmosphere through a deep, nerve-inducing score from Colin Stetson, and impressively unpredictable camera direction. There are clear inspirations from classics such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen (and even 2011’s much underrated Kill List). And like those fondly remembered shockers, Aster’s film isn’t perfect – it’s a little overlong, occasionally fumbling around the good stuff towards the end. But it is important not to disparage Hereditary’s triumph by discussing the old – in with the new, as they say.
An outstandingly horrifying achievement from a debut filmmaker, Hereditary is a classic in the making, built on rock-solid, terrifying, atmospheric terror.
Directed by: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne