If the name hadn’t already been taken by another grim 2018 release, Hereditary just as easily could have been titled Loveless. Annie (Toni Collette) is the grief-stricken matriarch of a family that appears to be devoid of any love or warmth between its members. There is something deeply malignant at its core. Writer / director Ari Aster’s debut offers very little in the way of emotional respite and is an invigorating, cerebral tonic to the minefield of jump scares in the modern horror landscape. It’s a nightmarish portrait of motherhood concerning the psychic burdens we pass along to our kin. Primarily though, it’s the most viscerally intense horror film to grace multiplexes in years.
Annie is introduced in the midst of preparing for the funeral of her estranged mother. She’s joined by her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). While most of their interactions seem curt and strained, it’s immediately apparent there’s something very wrong with Charlie. Unkempt and antisocial, she also has some fixations with birds that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Jeffrey Dahmer biopic. Shapiro is perfectly cast as the darkly fascinating Charlie, who possesses one of those uncanny camera-ready faces reminiscent of Barry Keoghan in last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Likewise, as the first act progresses, Annie shows signs that all may not be quite right upstairs with her as well. To spoil any of Hereditary’s sadistic surprises should be considered a war crime, so I won’t delve any further. Needless to say, much of the fun to be had here comes in guessing just what variety of evil is lurking under the narrative’s surface. Hints towards the supernatural abound, but Aster is wise to root much of the conflict in such real-life horrors as bottomless grief and feeling alienated by one’s own family.
While it’s easy to point to stylistic forebears (the creeping paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby and the Kubrickian resplendence of The Lords of Salem chief among them), Hereditary is sleek and assured from frame one, with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski making immediate use of the dark color palette and menacing shadows. Annie is an artist by trade, crafting miniatures that represent events in her real life, and the film uses this as an ingenious visual motif, with wide camera pans to create a sense that we may just be looking at another one of her creations. Colin Stetson’s anxious score further adds to this harrowing banquet of dread and misery.
If an awards conversation is to happen around Hereditary, surely Collette will be at its center. She is nothing short of spellbinding in full downward-spiral mode, careening toward oblivion in her mourning and madness. There’s an explosive dinner-table conversation between her and Peter that is just as disturbing as anything else you’ll find here. Collette gracefully walks the line between overacting and authenticity while Aster’s script does a similar balancing act between family drama and piss-your-pants horror.
As a lifelong horror fanatic, it’s difficult to write this review without diving head-first into hyperbole, as Hereditary is as close to a perfect horror movie to receive a wide release since The Witch (itself another anomaly quality-wise). Even a late-in-the-game exposition dump didn’t ruin the film’s stunning momentum for me. A likely consequence from my constant binge-watching of the gruesome and macabre is outright desensitization; hardly ever does a horror film manage to evoke gut-level fear in me. Hereditary frightened me to such a degree that it will stay with me for the rest of the year. As my girlfriend noted walking out of the theatre, “It was scary, it was messed up and it made me want to call my mom.”