By Clayton Ambrose
Horror cinema has been having a tough time getting taken seriously in the new millenium. The landscape of the market for the genre is filled with shallow popcorn flicks, the people that see them, and the corporate heads who make it their mission to follow these trends as they line up and fall, one by one. This can lead to the general public forgetting the potential of horror and its unique opportunity to grab hold of your deepest fears and anxieties in a way that’s profound and substantial. However, every once in a while we’ll receive a film reminds you what horror can do, and one of those films is Hereditary, the debut from writer and director Ari Aster. The film masterfully blends truly terrifying horror elements with a harrowing story of loss and grief in its narrative of the Graham family’s coping with the death of a loved one and the secrets of the clan hiding just beneath the surface. Hereditary has already cemented itself, for me, as one of the best horror movies of the decade, and that first experience with it in the theater will be something that stays with me long beyond that initial viewing.
To begin, this film is excellent on nearly all cinematic levels, from the shot composition to the performances. What’s particularly impressive is the way the camera is intently focused on its subjects; the camera’s minimal movement allows the viewer to totally process the scene in front of them with no distractions, mimicking an observer peeking into one of Annie’s model homes. Within these shots, Toni Collette and Alex Wolff give truly powerful performances that are leagues beyond what you might expect to find in a horror film. Collette’s turn as a woman coming undone is filled with a nuance that goes beyond being frightened on camera. She doesn’t exist simply as an avatar for the audience, she is a fully realized character. The same goes for Alex Wolff’s performance as Peter Graham that plays in opposition to Collette. The two guilt-filled tragic characters play excellently off each other as they dig through past and present trauma in real time, with Gabriel Byrne as Steven acting as a grounded man in the middle of it all while his family spirals out of formation. Beyond the forces that comprise the visual existence of the film, what really makes Hereditary unique is the story at the heart of it all.
Most horror films exist in a bubble where they function more like auto-pilot thrill rides with the audience enthralled and alert in the moment but nonetheless leaving their experience at the door to be forgotten until the home release. For a horror film to stand on its two legs, there needs to be something in between the frights that allows it to take residence in your mind instead of passing right through. I’m happy to say that Hereditary brings this quality in spades. In a sense, Hereditary is two films; One being the horrifying, visceral tale of surfaced family secrets, and the other being a potent and heartrending mediation on grief and the many effects it has on the family. The latter is borne from the former in a way that actively subverts horror tropes, particularly having to do with the weight and seriousness of death, or the lack thereof in the case of many horror films. We get our first gruesome death in the first quarter of the film with the emotional focal point of the film: Charlie’s decapitation. The death happens in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of rapid intensity after Peter swerves to dodge a dead animal in the road, causing Charlie’s head to collide with telephone pole on the side of the road as her head hangs out of the window. The car stops in an instant, the momentum of the scene stalled with the vehicle as the camera stays steady on Peter’s face as we witness him process the incident, eyes welling up with tears as he begins to speak but realizes quickly that he has no one to speak to. As he slowly drives away, the second phase of the film begins.
The entire second act of this film is centered around the aftermath of this tragedy, trading pedal-to-the-metal intensity for quiet moments of a family in grief. Charlie’s death was grotesque and shocking, but instead we are left to dwell on it with the characters instead of turning them into disposable lambs to the slaughter. Annie and Peter’s struggles with grief and each other, backed by Collette and Wolff’s incredible performances, are the real heart of this film, as their character arcs create something that can be rare in horror: actual stakes. Hereditary’s characters live through a pain that is strong and tangible. They are victims of events beyond their control yet unable to rectify this with their feelings of guilt and blame, as evidenced by Annie’s constant failing attempts to objectify her pain through her miniatures. For some viewers, this might be where the film fails them by denying them the relentless misery that seemed to be signaled by Charlie’s demise. It’s a slow, mostly quiet ride to the third act, but these moments of silence are where the film asserts itself as a unique presence by prioritizing emotional weight and despair over thrills.
After all this talk of the drama aspect of the film, you might still be thinking: “Is it scary though?” Well, I can say without a doubt that Hereditary is one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, but in a way that might not resonate with everybody. Past Charlie’s death, the film takes its time with deliberate pacing that ever so slowly and steadily keeps the tension creeping until the third act pulls out all the stops. What’s especially impressive is that there is only one true “jumpscare” in the film, as the film presents most of its terrifying imagery without blaring musical stings or fake-outs to pad the landing. Hereditary is confident in its ability to terrify you and the film allows its twisted plot to unfold in front of you in full view, no holds barred. This comparison will have been made many a time by the time this comes out, but the film really functions similarly to 2016s The Witch in that it speaks to a fear that is hard to properly describe. It may not strike the fear of God into your heart but it will unnerve you, it will challenge you, and it will break you down by the time it’s finished. Much like the Graham family, you will be subject to Ari Aster’s grand design.
Hereditary is most certainly a divisive film; I’ve heard reactions from proclaiming it the best horror film of the decade to deriding it as boring and overhyped. I welcome this response with open arms, because Hereditary is a challenging movie. It’s not an easy watch on multiple levels, and I feel that this demands a dialogue from both sides of the aisle, because, well every other genre gets it. Most horror doesn’t really spawn any meaningful discussion other than rote question and answer, so I was glad to see that Hereditary lived on with people outside of the car ride home from the theater, regardless of whether or not those feelings were positive or negative. If you’re wondering if you should see it, I would highly recommend this spine-chilling and deeply sorrowful film, but be ready for an experience unlike anything you’ve seen, however good or bad that might be.