Principal Cast : Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd.
Synopsis: After a long-time matriarch passes away, a grieving family is haunted by tragic and disturbing occurrences, and begin to unravel dark secrets.
Good horror films are extremely rare. Great ones even less so. Iconic ones are a once-in-a-generation event. Hereditary is one such film. Terrifying, incredibly moving, and affecting on a level only genius-level film-making can achieve, Hereditary isn’t just one of the greatest horror films of all time, it’s easily one of the best films of the year to boot.
Grieving miniatures artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) and her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) are mourning the loss of Annie’s unhinged mother. Their son, Peter (Alex Wolff) is distant and unwilling to relate, while daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who suffers from a social disorder, misses the older woman. A series of further tragedies occurs for the family, with Annie’s mental state being questioned by those closest to her. A woman from Annie’s grief support group, Joan (Ann Dowd) instructs her how to conduct a seance to commune with the dead, unleashing an already spiritually weak household into a nightmare of grief and attack.
Hereditary is a sublime experience in ratcheting, smothering malevolence. An underpinning of insanity, or retributive anger and themes of paternal grief are a rich vein of story to mine, and Hereditary’s spiritual supernatural accentuate brilliantly the feeling of loss and impotence by Collette’s Annie Graham. Suggestions of Annie’s mental state being fragile, passed down genetically from her parents and grandparents, elicit feelings of discordant empathy in the viewer, grafting an unsettling presence within the movie that plays up natural emotional touchstones.
Ari Aster’s utterly terrifying screenplay builds from a quiet opening to its textured and nuanced experience of the afterlife, as Annie’s family experiences both unimaginable grief and heartbreaking terror. Aster does what many horror directors often forget: make the characters relatable, or at the very least approachable to the audience so we become invested in their plight. Annie, as the matriarch, is seen as the bastion of reason and sense but this investiture is underwritten by our own preconceived idea of motherhood. Her slow descent into madness is mirrored by Peter’s own, as the family is slowly torn apart by forces beyond their control. He gives us characters of depth without perceptibly handing it to us on a plate; we have to work for it, but the result is an audience that attaches to the characters and goes along for the ride.
The intimate nature of this story is abetted superbly by the brilliant cast. Gabriel Bryne is wonderful as Annie’s disbelieving husband, a quiet, devoted man not prone to outbursts of supernatural belief. Milly Shapiro, as the tragic Charlie, is effectively chilling not for her ability to deliver dialogue but rather her appearance and countenance when the horrific stuff starts to manifest. Then there’s Ann Dowd, who plays the friendly and grandmotherly Joan with a great degree of subtle insidiousness, and her part in the plot comes with a dynamite twist to open the film’s third act. But Hereditary is Toni Collette’s film, delivering a career-best turn as Annie and her desperation to salvage her family’s eternal souls will literally tear your fingernails out with terror. She runs the gamut of Oscar-calibre scenes, from total mental closure, to anger, confusion, and eventually tortured hysteria, and as an arc for a character in paranoia there are few others like it in cinema. Maybe Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby comes close, but never to this depth or extent. Hereditary has a lot to thank Polanski for, in any case.
Anticipatory dread is a great motivator in horror films, and Aster’s careful, suggestive, manipulative style here is a masterclass in building tension. Slow, carefully considered camera moves and focus-led reveals, not to mention a crisp, razor-wire sound design, and effective cinematography (by Pawel Pogorzelski) will have your unwavering attention on the screen, as clues and glimpses of ghostly goings-on occur throughout, and while a lot of the film supposes we are better at imagining true horror moreso than being affected by anything overtly visual, Aster unleashes a truly terrifying final half hour that will have you holding back a cry. It’s a truly remarkable directing job, this one, a polish and precision of timing and aural cues maximising the effectiveness of Hereditary’s terrifying endgame.
It may be cliched to compare Hereditary to other iconic films in the horror genre – Rosemary’s Baby I’ve mentioned, but one should also consider the effectiveness of The Exorcist, the pulsating chills of Hitchcock’s Psycho, or creeping shivers of Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense – but this is a movie experience that will linger long in the memory. It’s a subtle, insidiously effective chiller, filled with tormented characters and an intimate, soul-destroying narrative. Few genre films in recent times would approach Hereditary’s combustible potency – It Follows, The Babadook and The Witch may do – and it’s underselling things badly to suggest this movie is a game-changer unlike any other. Effectively executed and delivering genre perfection in a world obsessed with jump-scares and pointless gore, Hereditary is a sublime mental pummelling that you’ll be thinking about for a very, very long time.