Every family tree hides a secret.
The first thing you should know about Hereditary is that it’s not the greatest horror film of all time, and it’s certainly not this generation’s answer to The Exorcist (1973) — really, it’s got more DNA in common with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or even The Wicker Man (1973). Early festival-generated hype may have set the bar of expectation too high on this one, and more than a few pundits have expressed disappointment in their reviews.
However, Hereditary is still very, very good. A week out from first seeing it, the film remains with me, and its bold combination of creeping dead, exquisite design, the odd hairpin plot twist and the occasional dash of shocking gore make it worth the time and ticket money of any fan of the genre.
It’s also a film worth going into cold; so if it sounds like your thing, get yourself to a cinema before reading further. You’re in for a good time.
Writer and director Ari Aster centers his story on the Graham family as they process their mingled feelings of grief and relief following the death of family matriarch Ellen, who by all accounts was a weird and manipulative old bitch even before dementia made her a nigh-unbearable burden on daughter Annie (Toni Collette), son-in-law Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and grandson Peter (Alex Wolff). She doted on granddaughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), though — and Charlie’s own brand of strangeness, which includes severing and keeping the head of a dead bird and just generally hovering in the background like the kid in the red coat in Don’t Look Now (1973), indicates that their relationship might already have been a bit toxic.
‘A bit toxic’ becomes ‘actually quite terrifying’ when the inexplicable supernatural events start piling up and, without drifting into the spoiler lane, it’s worth noting that Aster uses audience expectations and understanding of the genre to set us up to believe Hereditary is pushing in one direction, before revealing that the film we’re watching is another rough beast entirely. It’s a neat bit of filmmaking flair, and I suspect Aster’s real skill at both misdirection and foreshadowing will become more apparent on subsequent viewings.
Thematically, Hereditary initially leans into the unspoken horror of ageing and the idea that our parents might become strangers to us as their faculties decline, before doubling down on the more subtly disturbing implications of familial dysfunction. Unlike, say, the Freelings in Poltergeist (1982), the Grahams aren’t a nice, normal family suddenly beset by eldritch forces. They’re already pretty messed up. The relationship between Annie and Steve is strained, Peter’s going through the normal arc of adolescent acting-out and boundary-pushing, and Charlie is, well, just a deeply weird kid.
On the metaphorical level, the horror here is combo: on one level, the hell of your own making in failing your family and creating a toxic household where nobody is happy (Annie is an artist who makes miniature dioramas and tends to disappear into her work in stead of, you know, dealing with her shit); on another, the helplessness we feel in thrall to our genetic identity. H.P. Lovecraft dealt with this sort of thing in The Shadow Over Innsmouth and other stories — the idea that we’re doomed because of bad blood, that our lineage is tainted, and we can’t do anything about it. Taken a step further, we’re talking about generational cycles of abuse, which was a bit beyond old H.P., but is clearly a point of concern for Aster.
The cast embodies these themes beautifully and special note must made of Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense (1999), who brings a mix of guilt, regret, relief, self-loathing, and desperation to the screen that feels wholly earned. The film calls on her to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and she acquits herself well (compare Gabriel Byrne, a solid performer, who is given the unrewarding job of playing Voice of Reason Guy as things get increasingly unreasonable). Also fantastic is Milly Shapiro, who gives a Creepy Kid performance for the ages.
Hereditary is a case of ‘don’t believe the hype but see it anyway.’ Critics have been a bit quick to bestow New Classic status on Aster’s film, and while that may do wonders in terms of bums on seats, it’s also doing its bit to generate an undeserved backlash. Taken for what it is, it’s an excellent, thoughtful horror flick, and well worth your time.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson