In our current horror canon brimming with found-footage invisible demon encounters, possessed dolls and questionable nuns, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is a further step towards the horror genre being taken seriously.
The film follows the Graham family in the aftermath of Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother’s funeral. Her death, seemingly innocuous, begins a sequence of disturbing and violent events which cause the family unit and the individuals within it to unravel. As basic a plot description as that seems, going into detail ruins all kinds of nasty surprises – the trailer itself barely reveals anything. And indeed, this horror film can be considered a mystery with your viewing experience underlined by mutterings of ‘what the hell is going on?’ to the friend you forced to accompany you and the answers not being revealed until the last twenty or so minutes.
What can be revealed though is that the film is horrifically transfixing. Aster (who also wrote the film) has created an atmosphere that we coexist with forces both omnipresent and evil. It is another example of horror-drama (which I could abbreviate as ‘dramor’, or if you’re feeling particularly risqué: ‘horma’) that joins other films such as The Witch in depicting the destruction of the family unit as they fight against the incomprehensible. When you watch the film, there is this constant sense of dread and wrongness, like the conviction that eyes are watching when you leave the closet door slightly ajar. It is the ambiguousness of the evil force disrupting the family that is possibly the most unsettling thing about this film and keeps your eyes on the screen for fear you’ll miss some essential clue. But let me save you the time: you will literally never guess what is going on. The ending, however, is very polarising. While it (thankfully) explains the reasons behind everything, it comes out of left field and doesn’t have as satisfying a payoff as I wanted. You will have your questions answered but you might feel annoyed or perplexed at the answers – expect the unexpected.
I cannot say anything bad about the acting. Toni Collette’s portrayal of Annie engages in all extremes of the emotional spectrum: comedically cavalier or thrashing in the throes of grief – she convinces you. Gabriel Byrne, as her husband Steve, represents a more introverted despondency that is all the more crushing for being hidden. Annie’s children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) deliver performances that are soul-crushingly affective. Every character walks with the pall of defeat, drained of colour and optimism and we, the audience, feel similarly defeated; rooting for an unrealistic happy ending. It feels like we are watching their essences being slowly siphoned off leaving hollow vessels in their place.
With very few jump scares and very few instances of gore (though they are quite visceral), Hereditary still proves an unsettling, emotional watch. It might not give you those Paranormal Activity-esque sleepless nights but you may leave feeling a little hopeless. We won’t blame you for keeping tabs on your family either, for the film proves that are worse things in the world than that uncle who gets drunk at the family barbecue and asks intrusive questions.
Words by JT Early.