Every cinematic experience is inherently subjective, but the horror genre presents a particularly vivid illustration of just how personal responses to films can be. Fear is a primeval emotion – perhaps the primeval emotion – and as such it’s tremendously challenging to parse exactly why a feature might elicit shrieks of terror from one viewer and an indifferent shrug from another. A critic can describe whether a horror picture “works” from a storytelling standpoint, or why the elements of its style are distinctive, but there’s no guarantee that any given viewer will be on a particular film’s spine-tingling wavelength. Even ostensibly unassailable genre classics like The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), and The Shining (1980) have their stalwart detractors – not just the usual smugly contrarian critics, but ordinary people who simply don’t find those pictures scary.
All of this is to say that one should take the essential subjectivity of the frightening into account when weighing the following statement about writer-director Ari Aster’s feature film debut, Hereditary: It is, hands down, the most terrifying new horror film that this writer has seen in more than a decade.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that Aster’s feature is the best horror film in the past 10 years – that honor still goes to Robert Eggers’ 2015 masterpiece, The Witch – but, rather, that it elicits a deliriously intense reaction from the viewer, the sort of dark, pulsating terror that comes along only rarely in a genre lamentably overstuffed with schlock that is alternately tedious, clumsy, and insulting (and occasionally all three). In such a landscape, Hereditary arrives like a white-hot dagger driven directly into the base of the viewer’s skull. It’s not merely “good”; it’s downright traumatic. Aster conjures a sensibility of refined, gnawing anxiety that slowly swells over the course of the film’s opening 30 minutes and doesn’t relent until its hellishly glorious final shot. In an era where even casual filmgoers are inured to the formulaic shocks of mainstream horror, Hereditary is the most uncommon beast of all: a story that remains brutally unpredictable and unhinged right to its pitch-black conclusion.
That story begins with the funeral for Ellen Leigh, elderly mother to Annie Graham (Toni Collette), a miniaturist artist living in suburban Utah with her psychiatrist husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne); older teenaged son, Peter (Alex Wolff); and 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). It’s painfully apparent from the outset that Annie had a fraught relationship with her widowed mother, a “difficult” woman who spent the final years of her life as a bedridden, not-altogether-welcome guest in her daughter’s home. The eulogy that Annie awkwardly delivers is replete with backhanded compliments, and later she appeals to Steve regarding the appropriateness of her emotional reactions: “Should I feel sadder?” (Crucially, Aster never permits the viewer a glimpse of Ellen as she was in life, not even in flashback; the deceased are only accessible through the recollections of the living.) Notwithstanding her allegedly disagreeable demeanor, the mother's memorial service is well attended by a circle of friends who are completely unfamiliar to Annie and her family. Charlie, a quiet, compulsive, and perhaps autistic girl who was purportedly Grandma’s favorite, is the only one who notices a stranger surreptitiously dabbing a substance on Ellen's lifeless lips.
In the wake of the funeral, life for the Grahams initially appears to proceed normally, if pensively. Annie is preparing for an upcoming exhibition of her work, which seems to consist solely of exacting, 1:12 scale re-creations of the family’s home and various scenes from their life. (Her mother’s stint in hospice care and eventually the memorial service itself are among the subjects Annie incorporates into her dioramas.) Steve is the yin to Annie’s yang – reflective and conciliatory where she is voluble and dominant. Peter is a bit of a stoner hothead, perpetually at loggerheads with his mother over the usual trivialities of adolescence. Charlie, meanwhile, is the one who seems most discombobulated by her grandmother’s passing. Already a self-evidently “weird kid,” she begins hearing indistinct whispers and glimpsing strange omens. At night, she often escapes the cavernous (yet somehow suffocating) rooms and hallways of the main house for the sanctuary of her wooden treehouse, which is warmed by the red glow of ceramic heaters.
Annie too begins to see things that aren’t there, and – in one of those expedient lies that married couples silently and mutually agree not to prod at – sneaks off to a local grief support group under the pretense of going to the movies. There she opens up to a circle of strangers about her family’s calamitous history, encompassing a father who died before she was born, a brother who committed suicide in his adolescence, and a domineering, impossible-to-please mother with whom Annie never properly reconciled. It’s at this support group that she later meets Joan (Ann Dowd), an older woman with a sweetly hospitable and compassionate personality – a type so unfamiliar to Annie that she is too befuddled to reject the offer of a friendly shoulder to cry on.
Given that Hereditary is a horror film, Joan’s unctuous, overly familiar demeanor will probably set off alarm bells for the canny viewer. Suffice to say that Annie’s new friend is less than honest about her motives, although she also proves to be the least of the Graham family’s problems. To say more would stray too deeply into spoiler territory, but given the radical reputation that Aster’s feature gleaned at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it’s startling how familiar some of the plot’s fundamental building blocks turn out to be. Hereditary is a hybrid species that incorporates both ghost-story and occult-horror conventions, with a generous dollop of the dizzying psychological terror that characterizes “disturbed protagonist” thrillers like Repulsion (1965), In the Mouth of Madness (1994), and Black Swan (2010).
In the broadest sense, there might not be anything groundbreaking about Hereditary’s premise, but what makes the film instantly indelible is its peerless, skin-crawling execution of that premise. The menacing mood that the filmmakers conjure is nothing short of overwhelming, and almost agonizing in its sustained intensity. This is achieved not through the sensory overload of the blockbuster tentpole or the stomach-turning gore of “provocative” European art-horror. (Although the film is shockingly grisly in spurts, featuring a handful of jaw-dropping visuals that are guaranteed to serve as raw nightmare fuel for years to come.) Rather, director Aster and his crew rely primarily on slow-burn theatrics, gradually tightening the screws in such a way that the viewer is perpetually, nauseatingly aware that something – something awful – is going to happen. This premonition is confirmed, again and again, in scene after scene, but the sensation never has an opportunity to ebb. Every disturbing swerve that Hereditary takes is just a prelude to the next one, and once Aster’s film picks up some unholy momentum about a quarter of the way into its 127-minute running time, the viewer isn’t permitted a moment’s respite until the end credits mercifully begin to roll.
This film is, in a word, punishing. Obviously, enduring more than two hours of enervating anxiety is not every filmgoer’s notion of a jolly good time at the movies. It’s for this reason – rather than, say, any specific morsel of graphic content – that Hereditary arguably deserves a warning label. It is double-black-diamond horror cinema, pitched primarily at genre enthusiasts who will be enthralled to discover a new filmmaker who can make them feel so profoundly uncomfortable. Any halfway competent director can conjure Pavlovian shrieks with schematic jump-scares, baroque torture set pieces, and the dank, unimaginative visual vocabulary that dominates the horror genre today. Hereditary scratches at a deeper, more obstinate itch, filling the viewer’s mind with a terrible, formless unease through small yet oppressive details: a glimpse of a drawing in a child’s notebook; an ominously groaning bass clarinet on the soundtrack; a line of dialogue that clicks with dreadful implication.
As with most truly great horror films, it’s not one overriding factor that lends Hereditary its darkling potency, but the combined effect of numerous creative contributions. Aster’s writing is, admittedly, less impressive than his direction – a few of the film’s lines are unaccountably clunky, and the nitty-gritty details of the occult conspiracy plot start to unravel if one picks at them too closely. His command of the frame, meanwhile, is startling and exceptional. Enthusiastically wide ranging, the film’s compositions embrace a robust diversity of shots, angles, and depths of field, without ever straying into the distracting visual gymnastics of a show-off. Aster’s camera regularly creeps and slithers through the Graham home at the molasses pace of a nightmare, often tugging a character (or their quivering gaze) toward some appalling discovery. In several instances, the director employs a time-hopping match cut to evoke a sense of lurching disorientation – with an audible tick, day becomes night or a bedroom a classroom – but he is shrewd enough not to overuse this device.
Cinematographer Pawl Pogorzelski (Water for Elephants, Tragedy Girls) swathes the interiors of Hereditary – particularly the Grahams’ wood-filled home – in a shroud of gray, brown, and bronze shadows, lending a smothering aura to spaces that would normally be inviting. Meanwhile, editors Lucian Johnston and Jennifer Lame employ an approach that favors long shots during scenes of sustained terror, drawing out the film’s gestures until the screen itself seems to be trembling with a pent-up scream. However, no member of the crew is more proximally vital than avant-garde saxophonist and composer Colin Stetson (Blue Caprice), whose soundscape of ambient droning, shrill eruptions, and hoarse chuckles provides a bedrock of disquiet for Aster’s images. Often, it is Stetson’s score that provides the most conspicuous sensory clue that something disturbing is afoot.
The undeniable lodestone of the film is Collette, delivering a riveting, career-best performance that can heave suddenly from nervous incredulity to tearful contrition to venomous rage – and make it all seem wholly credible. As Annie, she conveys a woman who is at once the empress and prisoner of her family, a figure wracked with guilt and resentments in equal measure. She is prone to a sort of bottled-up reflexivity that drives her to reconstruct her life in miniature, crafting dollhouse worlds where she can both fuss the details and control the nascent narrative. Her grief and the attendant sludge of toxic emotions that it dredges up make her tragically vulnerable, unleashing her worst impulses and priming her for manipulation by sinister forces.
The places that Hereditary goes are exceedingly repulsive, emotionally speaking, touching on themes that few horror films are willing to tackle. Aster probes uncomfortably at the darker reasons that people elect to have children, which in the film’s formulation are akin to homunculi – fashioned out of their progenitors’ flesh for ends that are, at best, coldly pragmatic and, at worst, appallingly egomaniacal. Any viewer unfortunate enough to have been raised by a narcissistic parent will recognize the twisted vision of family life that Hereditary proffers. Children (and grandchildren) are seen as little more than vessels into which parents might pour their own ambitions and bitterness. More broadly, the film presents a harrowing allegory for the fetid legacies that are passed down from generation to generation through the sorcery of nature and nurture: addiction, violence, bigotry, and worse. The old saw that we all eventually become our parents is unsettling enough, but Hereditary suggests an even darker possibility. Whether through genetics, trauma, or black magic, the dead are always pulling the puppet strings of the living.