Hereditary: A Deeply Unsettling Slice of Psychological Horror
Review by Aaron Haughton
Hereditary is the auspicious debut from first time writer/director Ari Aster, who cultivates a moody sense of foreboding that ebbs throughout the film like a seasoned veteran. The film is extremely well crafted and thoroughly unnerving, filled with great moments of tension and nightmarish imagery, and depending on your individual sensitivity, its persistent creep and unrelenting squeeze has the potential to leave you completely disturbed.
Aster sets the tone immediately with an opening shot — a slow zoom out, followed by a creeping pan and a zoom in toward a miniature model of our character's house — that imposes an omnipotent feeling that courses throughout the film and infects our reading of the material. It's impossible to not get a sense of the ominous fatalism at work, or to view the family as anything other than miniature figures, mere powerless pawns caught in the gears of a hopelessly evil machine. Aside from the moments of ghastly imagery, the film's most disturbing quality stems from this constant looming resignation that hangs above the characters, which we know from the very start (through Aster's incredible opening shot) will not end favorably.
With the tone established, we enter into the lives of the Graham family (played by Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, and newcomer Milly Shapiro) in the wake of burgeoning tragedy, i.e. the death of Annie's (aka Toni Collette's) mother, who we learn has a complicated relationship with Annie and her family. From here, Aster sets the stage wherein all hell is allowed to break loose; however, like the masters that Aster scholarly studies (Roman Polanski, Peter Greenaway, and Stanley Kubrick), he does not play his hand all at once. Much like Kubrick's The Shining, he continues to up the ante in subtle and increasingly more disturbing ways, which are not always as obvious as you may think.
Hereditary cannot simply be reduced to a solid horror entry. No, the film serves dually as an effective family drama that explores the destructive power of grief when gripped with a terrible tragedy, as well as a perturbing genre film full of seances, spirits and spooks. The film is one of the more impressive debuts — perhaps next only to Julia Ducournau's Raw — and is easily one of the best horror films from the past decade, deserving to sit next to the likes of The Witch, The Babadook, Get Out, Raw, The Conjuring and Sinister. The level of artistry and meticulous craft is worthy of the praise; however, the constant comparisons to William Friedkin's The Exorcist seem to be a bit of a reach. If anything, the film lends itself more to Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.
The acting is absolutely fantastic, especially Alex Wolff and the incomparable Toni Collette, both of whom deliver powerhouse performances and are deserving of an Oscar nod (at the very least) for their work here. Outside of the core performances of Wolff and Collette, the film is heightened by some solid supporting roles from Ann Dowd, the thoroughly creepy Milly Shapiro, who makes her big screen debut, and a fairly underutilized, but nonetheless great Gabriel Byrne.
A deep dive into the film is definitely warranted; however, this review isn't the place. With a film such as Hereditary, the less you know is the better, and discussing the narrative vaguely without spoiling any of its delightful, albeit alarming surprises is nearly impossible. The film is worthy of multiple viewings, which unlocks more and more buried elements of the evil that lurch within, and it ends on a gloriously bizarre note, only to undercut itself at the last second with a bit of unnecessary exposition.
With Hereditary, what works is highly effective, but there are a handful of moments that don't exactly gel with the whole of the film. Nonetheless, Hereditary is a must see, and deserves to be seen in a theater setting with the maximum amount of occupants for the best effect. If you're really brave, you'll take the whole family to see this one.
Rating: 4.5 tongue clucks outta 5.
What do you think? Was Hereditary one of the best crafted horror films of the past decade? Is the film overhyped? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!