The night that I saw Hereditary it was imperative that I stay up as late as possible. Typically, I have a bed time of around 11:00 on weekdays, but in anticipation of an early morning flight, I made it a point to deprive myself of sleep in advance in order to better manage a powerful combination of jet lag and an altered schedule. This is no easy feat for a guy like me who thrives on routine. So it is with the deepest of gratitude that I offer these words up to Hereditary, a film so deeply unsettling, so horrifying on an almost cellular level, that sleep was made an impossibility. Alone in a darkened apartment my brain went on a rampage thinking about all the aspects of my life adjacent to the themes of the film; the insecurities which make sleep difficult on a normal night amplified one hundred fold. Before letting the warm embrace of slumber engulf my being, I embarked on no less than three “ghost checks,” in which I sneak around my apartment searching every nook and cranny for anything potentially supernatural.
Note: I am writing these words while on the aforementioned flight, so everything worked out just fine.
One year distant from Get Out, we find ourselves in a cultural reassessment of the horror genre. No longer do we live in a world where inclusion of the supernatural or horrific automatically relegates a film to the novelty category. We are finally starting to believe what horror junkies have known since day one: much in the same way that comedy can be used to hold a candle to the asses of the powerful, horror can be a precision tool for audiences to look inward to their own demons and reconcile them within our ever-changing environment. What I’m saying is that when Toni Collette (and god-willing, Ann Dowd) find themselves nominated at next year’s Oscars, Hereditary had better be referred to as what it is: a horror film. None of that “thriller” nonsense.
A24’s latest offering is one best left unexplained. The plot is a cruel (but never boring) slow burn, which meters out narrative information on a need to know basis. There are multiple unpredictable twists and turns, a few of which occur before the film even hits the end of the first reel, and you’d be best served to go in blind. Basically, all you need to know is the following: After the passing of the Graham family matriarch, work-from-home miniature model artist Annie (Toni Collette) deals with a spiraling tragedy/grief cycle that hints at a supernatural element to her family’s lineage. Her son, Peter (Alex Wolff) is a distant stoner, her husband (Gabriel Byrne) a no-nonsense psychiatrist, and her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) a troubled 13 year-old who is on some sort of developmental disability spectrum, set the baseline for Annie’s daily stressors which, even prior to supernatural intervention, is higher than what most would find bearable.
This is the feature length debut for filmmaker, Ari Aster, and Hereditary showcases an exciting new voice in cinema. Not since Julia Ducournau’s Raw have I seen a debut so assured, visceral, and thematically dense. The cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski, evokes a post-Conjuring wood-paneled warmth that, despite being shot in a crisp digital format, suggests a grit and warmth more typical of a dated film print. This warmth is welcomed at first, but juxtaposed against the positively chilling nature of the film, it evokes the breach of safeness that every horror filmmaker has made their goal since Hitchcock ruined showers for everybody with Psycho. If Jaws touts “just when you thought it was safe to go into the water,’ Hereditary could boast “just when you thought it was safe to exist at all.”
The film opens with a presidential zoom on one of Annie’s miniatures. As the camera nears the incredibly detailed model, it soon fills with flesh and blood denizens. It’s a bewitching way to kick things off, and it establishes the function of Annie’s art. She builds models from her life, as well as interpretations of her experience. In the eulogy she delivers at her mother’s funeral she speaks of the emotional distance which kept their relationship strained, and it’s through these models that Aster shows us that Annie, while working hard not to be distant with her own family, is unconsciously doing it by default. The art which attunes her to her own emotional processing cant help but act as a fence between she and her loved ones. This draws upon a similar character anchor to The Shining. When Jack Torrance is writing, you leave him alone or you feel the wrath of the interrupted creator. When Annie is working on her miniatures, it’s best to stay away.
Similarly distant is Peter, who hides behind a cloud of pot smoke to deal with his teenage anxieties. Charlie hides behind her drawings. Dad, his work. Interesting that the things through which each member of the family chooses to express themselves function almost entirely opposite. This breakdown of communication doesn’t just pull them apart in times of strain, but it drives each to be wary of the others’ intentions.
Throw ghosts in the mix and, well, things get pants-shittingly scary pretty quickly.
Some of the scares come from typical haunted house imagery, all of which are handled with more subtlety and grace (and impressively long takes) than the more shreiky entries in the genre, but where Hereditary succeeds is in constructing these set pieces upon a foundation of solidly built characterizations. Other moments of fear are created through outright shock. But instead of leaning just on spontaneity to bring these shocks to life, Aster instead lets these moments linger, daring us to look away; daring us not to.
Toni Collette, as always, brings class and believability to a role that less committed performers could passably phone in. It is through the strain in her eyes, the contortions of her face, and the lived-in quality of her delivery that so much of the terror is brought home. This is her movie, for sure, but it doesn’t always stay that way. The story dips into the experience of each of its players, plot-permitting (it even removes itself entirely for a single omnipotent shot that’ll blow you away). Alex Wolff, too, bears the brunt of much of the film’s horrors, and the times where the movie is following him can be both humorous and devastating. Wolff brings a damaged reality to Pete that resonated with me, a man who was once a fearful, hormonal youth.
As previously mentioned, Hereditary takes its time getting us there, and in a way that is reminiscent of the finest slow-burn horror flicks, builds to a climax in which all the stops are removed. If the first two acts had me in a sense of butt-clenched dread, the third act had me feeling like I was in a flaming truck with no brakes, recklessly careening down a rocky mountainside. Like Suspiria, The Wicker Man, or, for a more contemporary example, The Witch, once we’re rocketing through that home stretch, you’re either going to be all in, or all out. Either way, you won’t be getting any sleep. And once you start do doze off, don’t be surprised if a dissonant saxophone melody from composer Colin Stetson chills you right back into insomnia.
Hereditary opens Friday, June 8th, in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.