The finest horror film of this generation.
A film such as Hereditary is a rare breed. An exceptional, terrifyingly visceral horror that, as billboards and bus posters correctly state, is this generation’s equivalent of the Exorcist. High praise, indeed. This, unfortunately, makes it difficult to go in with fairly measured expectations, but believe the hype – Hereditary is every bit as scary as you hope, plus it’s an incredible debut piece from genre-rookie, Ari Aster.
When the Graham family matriarch passes away, her daughter’s family begin to discover the truth about their disturbing and, potentially, harmful ancestry.
The daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), isn’t hit too hard by the death of her mother (“Should I be more sad?” she asks). It’s made very clear from the offset that their relationship wasn’t exactly hugs and kisses, with Annie saying that they were estranged for a long time (but that she still ‘loved’ her). Living in a Grand Designs-esque home in a quaint wooded area, she focuses her time on constructing miniature portraits of life for an art-exhibition – a concept exploited awfully well in a fabulous opening shot. Supporting her endlessly is her devoted husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who is also father to son Peter (Alex Wolff), a typical pothead teen, and introverted daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The dynamics in the family are set up immediately, particularly with Charlie. She doesn’t feel like she fits in with the family, and misses her Gran. This frustrates Annie, clearly feeling like she can’t be a proper mother to her daughter.
But there’s far more at play here than family therapy. Without venturing into spoiler territory, Annie’s late mother was no innocent soul, perhaps fond of a dangerous seance every now and again. Her death brings all sorts of tragedy to the Graham family, reoccurring strange incidents and flat-out terrifying apparitions (a scene in which Annie sees her smiling mother in the dark is pure nightmare fuel).
Collette is in absolutely remarkable form here. Embracing the sort of desperation we saw her brilliantly portray in The Sixth Sense, her heart-ache and struggles throughout the terror are never in doubt. It’s a vastly versatile role that requires the transformative ability to move, grip and unnerve – Collette succeeds and then some. Byrne is likely going to be overlooked in the immediate attention the film will receive, but his calm, collected and admirable take puts him high on the list of Underrated Movie Dads for years to come.
Their kids carry the weight of much of the plot, less so Peter (although be prepared for a paralysing car sequence). Shapiro as Charlie is the real star. Haunting behind the eyes, yet carrying a painful vulnerability, her incessant mouth-clicking and dead stare gets under your skin. The cast work together terrifically, coming across like any normal, turbulent family – only with more supernatural peskiness.
Rather wisely, Aster avoids the tendency to indulge in ghost train frights. Ordinarily, you may expect one or two, but there’s none to be found here. Instead, the up-and-coming filmmaker employs a ruthless atmosphere through a deep, nerve-inducing score from Colin Stetson, and impressively unpredictable camera movements. There’s clear inspirations from classics such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen (and even 2011’s much underrated Kill List). And like those fondly remembered shockers, Aster’s film isn’t perfect – it’s a little overlong, occasionally fumbling around the good stuff towards the end. But it is important not to disparage Hereditary’s triumph by discussing the old – in with the new, as they say.
The film succeeds with that key horror necessity. Watching it, you feel that sensation in your chest like someone is tightening their grip round your lungs. You start to fidget, twitching your fingers and rubbing your arms. You get that icky feeling in your stomach like you’ve seen a ghost. What’s amazing though, is that as well as this, Aster’s feature works as a harrowing family drama about the traits, and perhaps demons, we carry from our parents. It’s a damning portrait of family life and the long-term erosion that takes place with a lack of communication. When dealing with the kind of unspeakable horrors the Graham’s have to endure though, you can hardly blame them for being a little unhinged.