You’ve heard it before: “This is the scariest movie since The Exorcist!” “Best horror movie in years, maybe ever!” “A new horror classic!” It seems these hyperbolic phrases are thrown around whenever a new horror film comes out, like they mean nothing nowadays, and 9/10 of the time I’d just roll my eyes at these baseless statements. But for the first time in my journalistic life, I’m going to say something I never thought I’d say: everything you’ve heard about Hereditary is true. Not only is Hereditary one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen in years, it is one of the most terrifying pieces of horror released. Not since I was a young kid, new to horror, watching Halloween for the first time, have I been legitimately terrified by a movie, to the point where I had a nightmare the night after watching it. So take that as you will.
Blanketed in tragedy and smothered in pure depression, Hereditary follows a family comprised of son Peter (Alex Wolff), daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne), and wife Annie (Toni Collette), and the pain that this family is put through. After the death of Annie’s mother, the family works as a whole to re-adjust itself, while Annie starts to notice weird phenomena throughout her day. As Annie progresses through the trauma of loss and her inability to cope, a mystery surrounding the state of her mother before her death and the connections to the unraveling of the family is brought into the foreground as, slowly but surely, the state of the family breaks in many painful, and hard, ways to watch. At the end of the day, it all could be summed up to spooky things go down in a spooky house to a spooky family, but the way Hereditary portrays itself is what makes this film an instant classic.
And that’s really want makes Hereditary stand out from the rest of the slow burning, scare-filled films: this is a legitimate, original piece of horror. While first-time director Ari Aster takes and utilizes all of the horror influences he wears on his sleeve–The Exorcist, The Shining, anything Kubrick really– he molds all of these pieces into a new, and incredibly original, piece of cinema, something most directors don’t have the ability to do, or at least do well. From the tracking shots in the dark hallways that lead us through Asters’ personal horror-filled maze of rooms, the camera poking out of the corner to see into a dark, foreboding area we’ve never seen before, to the way the camera lingers a few seconds too long, Aster utilizes the camera like he’s been in the business for over thirty years. It’s that touch that propels Hereditary to legendary status. It helps, though, that Ari not only crafted a well made horror movie, but just a well made movie in general.
At times, Hereditary decides to sway away from horror and gets into some deep character studies and behaviors, as well as the dynamics of a broken family, all while keeping the lingering dread that something bad, or worse than what we may have just seen, might happen at any time. At the heart of all the horror is a genuinely effective deconstruction of grief and the effects grief has on not just you, but on the people you love or surround yourself with. Sometimes grief manifests itself into a form of mental illness, making the stages of grief harder to accept, and in turn can make people act differently or irrationally. These are the kind of themes that are never addressed that much in cinema, let alone horror, and Hereditary knocks it out of the park giving us the best portrayed exploration of mental illness in cinema since The Babadook. It’s these themes Aster throws into Hereditary that makes the horror more horrifying and the heartbreaks harder to watch, pushing the film into another realm of cinema. A more intense form of horror storytelling, and a more cerebral process to watch. This alone makes Hereditary a new kind of beast in the horror genre.
It helps that you have a cast made up of so many talented actors to propel your movie to new heights, with the highlight being the always incredible Toni Collette. I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to say that Hereditary might be Collette’s finest performance to date, playing a heartbroken and mentally unstable mother and wife, who just doesn’t know how to cope just yet. The swings in emotions, the breakdowns, the tangents– I have not seen any actor get the aftermath of losing a loved one as much as Toni gets it. This is in addition to Alex Wolff’s Peter, who is trying his best to keep his composure in the crumbling family that surrounds him; Gabriel Byrne’s Steven, who is trying his hardest to hold it all together; and the creepy yet tragically innocent Charlie, played by the super talented Milly Shapiro. Each performance given by the four leads are all award-deserving performances, something I was not expecting walking into the theater.
By the end of the movie, I was in shock and speechless about everything in this film. From Aster’s ability to convey the thematic symbolism yet never feel forced, to the incredible acting, all the way to the final, terrifying, WTF moments of the final half hour. Hereditary is not only a horror masterpiece, but a masterclass in storytelling and in world building. Taking relatable themes and building what sounds like an unoriginal story on paper into the most unique horror movie in years, Ari Aster has crafted a film for the history books. I hope, with all of my heart, that history is kind to Hereditary, because this is now the new benchmark of horror. Your move now, Blumhouse.
dir. Ari Aster
Now playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre, Somerville Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and elsewhere.