- Incredible for a directorial debut from Ari Aster
- Unforgettable in all the good (and horrifying) ways
- Slow start that reveals a well-developed plot
- Includes one of the most shocking and unpredictable scenes in cinema
- Eternal sense of dread – horror throughout the entire film
- Doesn’t need to rely on cheap jump-scares
- Brilliant performances from whole cast
When a trailer can proudly boast that a film is “from the producer of The Witch” (presumably referring to producer Lars Knudsen), that’s more than impressive enough credentials to lure in even the most discerning horror fan. Though many may not have seen The Witch, it definitely made an impression, provoking a lot of talk about it. Hereditary is similar; it’s absolutely not for everyone… but it’s impossible not to talk about it, let alone forget it. Even more incredible for a directorial debut, Ari Aster has created a horror masterpiece that will provoke nightmares for generations to come.
Hereditary opens, as is typical with horrors, with a funeral attended by Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and their children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Though there to grieve for her mother’s death, Annie struggles to really feel upset, her confused emotions clear through her awkward eulogy. Still, the effects of her death start to be felt throughout the family – particularly with shy misfit Charlie. Whether it’s decapitating a dead pigeon or aimlessly wondering off, Charlie is in her own world and desperately misses her grandmother. The film soon takes a shocking turn, however, and it soon becomes clear that dealing with grief and death is only one step to something much more terrifying.
As has been made clear by some disgruntled audiences (for whom I admit having an ounce of contempt), it is rather slow to get going – but that’s not to say it’s ever boring. On the contrary, one accolade Hereditary can be proud of is that it is never dull. It starts more like a drama about a family learning to deal with the passing of a family-member, but it’s only when the horror really kicks in that we start to see the film’s fantastically well-crafted story. Even before this point though, there is a sinister undertone; a threatening atmosphere that never lets you feel comfortable or safe. Once the horror plot starts to take shape, it’s enjoyable to discover the little pieces of information, only really allowing you to understand at the very end. In fact, at the end there is a line which is a little too on-the-nose, explicitly explaining the plot for anyone who fell asleep half-way through. But it’s a well-developed plot that may be light on jump scares, but is heavy on everything else. The U-turn is unforgettable, sticking in my mind as one of the most shocking and unpredictable scenes in cinema.
There’s a reason Hereditary is being hailed as this generation’s The Exorcist. There are several moments in The Exorcist which have gone down in cinematic history; running down the stairs backwards, the spinning head, the act with the crucifix… to name just a few! Several shocking, even chilling and downright terrifying, moments are found throughout Hereditary, especially at the end. Not to say that there are no scares until then; an eternal sense of dread lasts throughout the film and culminates in pure terror. A little silhouette in the corner of the screen that different members of the audience will notice, gasps of shock rippling through the auditorium; countless decapitations; enigmatic moments that will haunt your dreams. Hereditary is a sophisticated horror, not needing to rely on cheap jump scares to terrify. The music is used brilliantly too, able to heighten tension at just the right time.
The cast really sell it too. Even with a small one of just four or five main characters, they all pull their weight. Despite irritating crying throughout, Alex Wolff contributes more than in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle; a noticeably different character at the end, Wolff’s Peter is the unsung protagonist of the film. One scene in particular, involves him just sitting at the wheel of a car for an endlessly long time, all his character’s emotions and thoughts easily legible from just his face and eyes. Byrne’s Steve takes a while for his character to really become layered and interesting, but when all hell breaks loose and only Annie and Peter are aware, you don’t know whether to feel sorry or frustrated with him. However, it’s Toni Collette and Milly Shapiro who really steal the show. The fact that, along with director Aster, this is Shapiro’s first film is astounding. Even without the disconcerting make-up, Shapiro’s performance is the very definition of creepy – but the film wouldn’t be the same without her. Collette’s Annie’s slow descent into madness is where the film really comes alive though. It’s a steady progression and every look and line can be read in various ways. You’ll feel sorry for her until you’re terrified of her.
There are some horrors, like the recent Truth or Dare or the seemingly unending series of Purge films, where I think it’s a tacky genre watched by people who don’t really want great films. But every now and then comes a film that saves the whole genre; A Quiet Place, Get Out, It… even Mother! if you count that as a horror (and I certainly do)… and of course Hereditary. This has everything you could want from a sophisticated horror – enough jump-scares to keep it entertaining, an eternal sense of discomfort and dread, shocking twists, a constant mystery and a terrifying climax – and all this from a feature-length directorial debut. Whatever comes next for Aster, let’s hope it inherits the quality of this film.