US | 2018 | Directed by Ari Aster
Logline: When the grandmother dies, the daughter’s family begins to experience increasingly bizarre and alarming secrets about their ancestry.
Employing a narrative slow burn, drenched in foreboding, dripping with dread, this supernatural tale of the disintegration of a scarred and vulnerable family is the most genuinely nightmarish horror movie in ages. Conjuring the atmospheric intensity from the best of the 70s, and, more importantly, armed with the tenebrous resolve that makes other acclaimed contemporary films, such as The Conjuring and The Babadook, far less the kind of horror movies that True Believers herald, this horror movie projects a darkness that sears holes.
The Graham family is gripped with solemnity. The matriarchal grandmother has passed away and left all kinds of trouble brewing. Her daughter Annie (Toni Colette) is struggling with her career art in miniatures, whilst keeping her demons locked away. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) does his best to keep the family harmonious, but the cracks are showing. Peter (Alex Wolff), the elder offspring, wants only to live like a normal teenager, while his oddball younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is harbouring an even deeper resentment.
What begins as a domestic drama riddled with dysfunctional behaviour soon unravels into a full-blown phantasm of hellish ancestral vice. Burnt offerings aren’t the half of it, this has third degree witchery blistering in its intent. Hereditary lays out a two-hour master class (or close to it) in horror suspense and execution. Colette delivers a central career best performance, while Wolff, newcomer Shapiro, and Ann Dowd as a spiritualist, offer excellent support. Byrne is solid also. Both Colette and Byrne serve as executive producers.
I take my hat off to composer Colin Stetson (who co-scored the excellent Blue Caprice from a few years back) who delivers an absolutely terrific soundtrack utilising classic style cues and contemporary minimalist sound design technique. Writer/director Aster also knows when to keep the scene quiet, and it works a darkly oneiric treat.
This is Aster’s debut feature after a run of short films, and he showcases a superb understanding of how the best horror movies unfold, operate, and manipulate. Without once pandering to the conventional jump scare tactics or red herrings so frequently used in popular cinema, Aster opts for the creeping unknown, laying down subtleties, slyly twisting the narrative screws, providing the audience with characters who are very convincing and empathetic. There’s a particularly shocking and disturbing death in the movie’s first act, the harrowing circumstances of which continues to linger long after the end credits have left the screen.
By cleverly molding a mainstream approach to esoteric material Aster takes the key element that made Paranormal Activity 3 the best of that series and presents a disturbing instant classic. Horror movies of this calibre don’t come around very often. One must savour the strange and macabre ingredients and relish them as a witch would stirring and tasting her own spooky brew. If you loved Oz Perkins' February, you'll definitely get a black magic kick from Hereditary.
It’s hard in this day and age for movies to survive the hype machine. Hereditary has been riding on a massive crest of acclaim, being compared to such seminal fare as The Exorcist. I went into the screening with expectations in check, having not even seen the teaser trailer. The movie deserves all the praise it gets. For me Hereditary ticks almost all the boxes, much more so than other recent horror darlings A Quiet Place and The Witch, and as a horrorphile I have a lot of boxes. Apparently Aster doesn't consider himself a horror director, is even turning down the big bucks from Hollywood, but I surely hope he makes another. And another.