Grief, guilt, and mental illness are not unusual themes in horror film. We’ve seen them in The Babadook, The Witch, It Follows, the list goes on. But Ari Aster’s debut feature film, Hereditary, takes the struggles of grief to another horrifying level. What he creates is a tense, devastating, and at times difficult to watch, look at the trauma we suffer at the hands of our family and how that trauma lives on past death.
Hereditary opens on the grieving Graham family. Annie, played by the phenomenal Toni Collette, has lost her mother and is trying to work her way through this loss with support groups and working on her artistic miniatures. Meanwhile, her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) tries to maintain some semblance of normalcy with their son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and young daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). But slowly everything begins to fall apart into a very dark place. Telling you any more about the plot would ruin the film and this is best viewed without any idea of what to expect.
Collette’s performance as Annie is one of the film’s biggest strengths. She is able to deftly maneuver between loving mother to explosive monster in a way that incites both fear and sympathy. Like she says, she “doesn’t want to bring anymore stress to [her] family.” But, to put it lightly, she doesn’t succeed. Collette brings everything she has to Hereditary and is an absolute powerhouse from start to finish. Paired with Collette is Alex Wolff who brings an impressive performance as a teenager who realizes that maybe his mother isn’t to be trusted.
Sound design plays an integral role in building the film’s tension. The score, composed by Colin Stetson, is oppressively chaotic, adding a layer of confusion and fear that matches the energy of the performances. But, just as oppressive as the score, is the use of silence. Aster doesn’t try to fill every moment with the score, but instead, carefully relishes in uncomfortable silence. This kind of silence, like what comes with any family argument, captures the fracturing family dynamic, as well creates a terrifying atmosphere.
It would be remiss to not mention the repetitive tongue clicking of Charlie that permeates the film. It is a simple, seemingly unassuming sound, that starts as an innocent child’s tic and morphs into a warning signal. One small sound has never felt so frightening.
Just like Aster is not afraid of silence, he is also not afraid of prolonged close-ups of his characters. The longer the camera stays closely on a character’s face, the more Aster makes the audience uncomfortably squirm in their seats and wonder when they will get a break (spoiler: they never do). Specifically, there are scenes where, instead of showing a horrific reveal, we hear it while the camera lingers on a closeup of a character’s face. Aster pairs cinematography and sound design together to create something that is nauseating, yet masochistically enjoyable.
Aster also frames particular scenes as if we are peering into one of Annie’s own miniature creations. These scenes make you aware that you are a spectator, looking in on this collapsing domestic space. They also make you aware that there is someone else in control, manipulating these characters like dolls.
The film’s biggest struggle is, like many horror films, its ending. It begins as a devastating portrayal of grief where cracks between the family slowly begin to grow. But once everything breaks, the film’s tone shifts into something very different. Hereditary’s power lies within its emotional impact, but its ending relies on something much gorier.
This film was hyped as this generation’s The Exorcist, which is an unfair comparison as Hereditary is able to stand on its own. It’s an important addition to modern American horror cinema and continues the trend of warping existing horror tropes into something even scarier. It’s a film that begs repeat viewings; I left the theatre shaken, unable to articulate how I felt about the traumatic journey I had just embarked upon and wanting to immediately watch it again to see what hints I may have missed. One thing is for sure: this is one of the best horror movies to be released in a long time. Hereditary will make you gasp, squirm, cry, and enjoy every minute of it.