Hereditary will haunt and terrify you


Ari Aster’s directorial debut is an unsettling, terrifying look at grief, mental illness, and the lineage we leave our children.

Horror movies will never please all comers. Some are too gory. Others are too stupid. But sometimes there’s a rare breed of horror film that takes all the different things that scare us and put them together to make something incredibly special. This unique concoction can be found with Ari Aster’s Hereditary, an unflinchingly frightening look at the legacies and burdens parents leave their children with, infused with a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned horror.

Aster opens the film with an obituary, the first glimpse at a family tree of the Grahams. Daughter Annie (Toni Collette) is finding it hard to express her emotions over the death of her mother. She asks her family if she should be more upset. Much of this has to do with a lengthy history of estrangement and tragedy in Annie’s background that’s forced her to distance herself — “that was my mom’s life.” It’s obvious Annie is a damaged soul. She’s still emotionally scarred from a woman who was mentally ill at best and utterly uncaring at worst.

Hereditary’s first half is a slow burn with comparisons to The Killing of a Sacred Deer — both share an interest in Greek tragedy, oddly enough. The Grahams go about their day, but it’s easy to see the cracks in their family dynamic. Annie has a fractious relationship with her two children, Peter and Charlie (Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro, respectively) due to an event from their past. For Annie, “no matter what I say or what I do it doesn’t matter because it happened.” Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is the quiet, reliable type who you understand doesn’t say much, verbally, but bottles up his emotions in order to stay stalwart.

Movies about grief are a dime a dozen, yet what Aster does is create an atmosphere of tension from the first scene. The Grahams are like a wire pulled taut, just waiting for something to break them apart and what does is depicted in a scene so brutal only the toughest person won’t be able to look away.

Hereditary is almost like a stage play, with much of the action taking place in the Graham’s dark, wood-paneled home — that looks like the setting for another A24 release about a family with problems, It Comes at Night. Annie, an artist who builds tiny replicas of scenes from her life, can’t seem to focus, both due to anxiety and the sneaking suspicion that something supernatural is going on. But even if there’s nothing spooky about the open doors and the desecration of a grave, then is Annie going insane? Aster asks whether it’s scarier to lose control of your mind or have your home invaded by some type of otherworldly presence.

This isn’t your typical haunted house thriller. Comparisons can be drawn to the likes of Poltergeist, since Hereditary has its own Carol Ann-esque figure in the form of the withdrawn Charlie. Later, when Annie decides to start dabbling in spiritualism, she’s excited by the prospect of the other side, a la Spielberg’s film. But what Aster does differently is infuse the familiar with the unsettling and the haunting, similar to ’70s and ’80s-esque features like The Changeling.

You’ll still catch people moving weird, contorting their faces, and running out of the shadows, but there’s no emphasis on inflicting jump scares. Instead, Aster wants to build the antagonism, the stress, and anxiety of this family onto the audience. Leaving them to witness uncomfortable family dynamics and harsh realities that are haunting because they’re relatable. One of the most uncomfortable scenes involves the family at dinner. All the actors respond to each other in different ways, the camera capturing their emotions in the moment as a means of extrapolating how they’re handling grief in general.

Hereditary is a powerhouse showcase for its cast! Each actor lays themselves bare in a movie that vacillates between extraordinary fright and brutal authenticity. The best of the best is Oscar-winner Toni Collette who should make room for another nomination. Collette beautifully portrays Annie’s slow unraveling starting with her fear of being perceived as too cold. The grief wells within her, leaving her conflicted on proper routes to express it. Even when she believes she’s found a kindred spirit in fellow grief survivor Joan (Ann Dowd), Collette keeps her distance to illustrate Annie’s complete inability to bond with a maternal figure. Yet as Annie falls apart there’s no way to doubt her love for her children as Collette attempts to play with her kids, constantly making up for the mistakes the character’s made in the past.

The other stars are just as compelling. Gabriel Byrne could easily sink into the scenery as Steve, but even when the film wants him to be the prototypical male skeptic there’s logic behind it. Byrne is quiet, contemplative, trying to hold things together to give his children one stable parent. As he listens to his wife, Byrne silent shakes in the background, keeping his emotions at bay as best he can.

Alex Wolff and newcomer Milly Shapiro are equally wondrous as the poor children at the center of this mess. Shapiro’s expressive eyes bore into your soul, and it’ll be impossible to get the knocking sound she makes with her mouth out of your head. Wolff, who presented himself as a lovable nerd in last year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, tries to be the average teen, but an accident in the beginning of the film puts on him a dangerous path that could repeat the sins of his family or be indicative of his own self-destructive guilt.

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Go into Hereditary as blind as you can. Don’t watch trailers or commercials, just purchase a ticket. The film’s third act does go on just long enough for you to compare it to other movies, but the buildup invades you. The tone is so oppressive and subtly frightening you’ll sleep with your lights on.