Festival hype can be a bit of a problem. I’ve written about it before; in the insulated community during a prestigious film festival, critics lean toward hyperbole over accuracy. The early praise for Hereditary is just the latest example. At the Sundance premiere, critics suggested the film is the scariest thing they’ve seen in years, saying it is full of “unspeakable horror.” That sounds exciting, even if it runs the risk of setting expectations so high. Luckily, critics who review film around its theatrical release – myself included – do not write from a festival bubble. I am happy to report Hereditary is indeed an intense film, more creepy than scary, and just may make your skin crawl.
The opening title card is intriguing because it is so unusual. It is a funeral announcement: the elderly Ellen Graham recently passed away, so her daughter Annie (Toni Collette) must give the eulogy. Annie’s relationship with her mother was frosty, even difficult, and the mourners seem to understand that. The Grahams return to routine, with Annie working on detailed dioramas, while her children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) fend for themselves. Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) seems absent, so Annie turns to a grief support group. She meets Joan (a terrific Ann Dowd), who says she has a way to communicate with the dead. Annie thinks Joan is full of it, at least until Joan somehow conjures supernatural forces right in front of her.
This is the feature debut of writer/director Ari Aster, and he demonstrates unusual patience and respect for the horror genre. Hereditary is a longish film, just over two hours, and the first half is more about tone and atmosphere than anything else. Something always seems off, whether it’s how the Grahams look at each other or Annie’s fits of anger. Collette has never been better: the role requires her to be vulnerable, hostile, cruel, and ultimately manic. She slides in and out of these modes seemingly without effort, while her family looks with a mix of resignation and disgust. A family dinner, already the setting of so many family dramas, has the staples of escalating horror. Before the real terror begins – which I’ll get to in a minute – Aster explores how some families cannot recover from the original sins of their elders.
A large chunk of Hereditary is from Peter’s perspective, and there is a temptation is to see Peter as a stand-in for the director himself. Peter is a decent enough kid, albeit a flawed one, and what happens to the Grahams are so bizarre, so specific that maybe Aster draws from real life. It turns out that is part of a bigger, more sinister strategy: Aster switches the point of view several times, toying with the audience, while subtly introducing the possibility of literal evil. Parts of the film may feel like they’re dragging, but as long as you meet the film halfway, then there will be uncommon rewards.
Hereditary owes a lot to Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Both of those classics were slow burns, with mothers realizing what’s happening at home only when it is too late. But Hereditary is also its own thing, developing a supernatural rulebook that is never explained too much. The last half hour is a plummet into full tilt madness, with imagery so depraved and creepy that it is almost funny. It also helps that the film has virtually zero jump scares. In fact, Aster seems to prefer the opposite: there are moments where we see the reaction shot before we see the transgressive imagery, and the anticipation is intense. Coupled with the pulsating score from experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson, the film defines its own rules, and is all the better for it.
As Aster kept turning the screws, heading toward the inexorable, I found myself… delighted by what I saw. I cannot think of another way to put it. The implications of the ending are horrifying – both in terms of what we witness and what it means – yet I found myself giggling because, after seeing so many horror films ease down in the end, here is one that keeps scintillating the tension all the way to its final frames. It’s the cinematic equivalent of driving into a wall without seat-belts, or jumping off a cliff without a parachute. Now would you look at that? I started this review rebuking hype, and then I couldn’t help but my write some of my own. I guess Hereditary is like that: it provokes a strong reaction, and the only language that can adequately describe it sounds like exaggeration. It’s that good.