Hereditary makes a compelling case for horror as an eternal entity, that the most deep-seated terrors are those that can take new forms but at their core can never be extinguished.
Steeped in profound horrors associated with grief, guilt, familial resentment and mental illness, Hereditary tethers itself to real-world trauma before lifting off into the supernatural. Writer-director Ari Aster’s slow-burning debut feature parcels out hints to its sinister mystery in small increments, drawing the viewer into an intense character-driven drama of a family torn apart by tragedy, their wounds routinely salted, until finally all hell breaks loose. Relying on atmosphere and emotional tension over jump scares, Aster imbues his film with an unnerving and devastating sense of dread.
At a mundane funeral, the bereaved Annie (Toni Collette) delivers a frank eulogy. Annie had a complicated relationship with her late mother, an intensely secretive woman who bobbed in and out of Annie’s life. An artist who specializes in crafting dollhouse-sized tableaux pulled from her daily life, Annie appears relatively unaffected by the death, other than when a trick of the light briefly appears to be an apparition of her departed mother.
But when she slips out to attend a grief support group—telling her somewhat-aloof husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), stoner teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and 13-year-old, cognitively-disabled daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), that she’s simply “going to the movies”—a heady mixture of resentment and regret pours out of her. We learn her mother had suffered with dissociative identity disorder and had endured, and even perhaps contributed to, the suicide of Annie’s schizophrenic brother. A family history of mental illness may appear to have skipped over Annie, but she later reveals a tendency toward sleepwalking that once left her children soaked in paint thinner, a lit match pinched in her hand. Her grief intensifies exponentially and almost unbearably when another tragedy suddenly strikes her family, one that ultimately leads an emotionally-gutted Annie to spiral down a maddening path that intersects with the occult.
Hereditary unrepentantly indulges in its influences, borrowing heavily from such classics as The Exorcist, The Shining and, most notably, Rosemary’s Baby. The film also follows modern hits like The Babadook and It Follows in grounding supernatural horror in modern anxieties, while its smoldering tension and slow-building plot harkens to Robert Eggers’ The Witch. But Aster transcends mere homage by taking a collagist approach throughout his film, reassembling a bevy of familiar horror tropes in deeply unsettling new ways that burrow into nerves. When matched with pitch-perfect technical execution and staggering acting performances, this becomes a film that, more often than not, fulfills its Sundance buzz as an instant horror classic.
Enough cannot be said about Collette’s tour de force as Annie, a captivating character who is run through the emotional wringer and exhibits both incredible strength and abject desperation in turns. Peter’s metastasizing manifestation of grief and guilt creeps up on the viewer, as the high-schooler is emotionally harangued when he should be consoled, and the film increasing becomes his story as well as his mother’s. Though perhaps a bit showy in a few unconventional shots, including an opening zoom into the dollhouse that seamlessly turns into Peter’s bedroom, Aster’s camera, rarely inert, heightens the unease by creeping through the house as though skulking through the shadows. And it’s within those shadows that many terrifying images manifest, sometimes so subtly that the gradual recognition of what we’re seeing almost feels invasive, as if the filmmakers are playing with our internal perception—all while an ominous score and impeccably creepy sound editing make this film’s horror a dynamic sensory experience.
Hereditary makes a compelling case for horror as an eternal entity, that the most deep-seated terrors are those that can take new forms but at their core can never be extinguished. This is a film that pulls off the astonishing trick of taking the familiar and making it into something disquietingly alien.