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Every year it seems like we get one horror film out of the festival circuit that gets called “the best/scariest horror film of the year.” This year, it is clear that Ari Aster’s Hereditary, which had its World Premiere at Sundance back in January and U.S. premiere on Sunday at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, is that film. Hype has become a point of contention among festival-goers and mainstream audiences lately, and while certain films may not warrant it, Hereditary most certainly does. It is a dark and dismal beast of a film that is most likely going to leave you curled up in your seat by the end of it.
This review is spoiler-free, but if you don’t want to know anything about the plot then skip the next paragraph.
We first meet Annie Graham (Toni Collette, in a dynamite performance) at her mother Ellen’s funeral. Annie and her mother were not close, so her eulogy is cold, distant and borderline cruel. It’s a risky way to introduce the protagonist of a film, but Aster (who also wrote the screenplay) does so with confidence. We soon learn that Annie’s entire life has been particularly traumatic. Her depressed father starved himself to death when she was young. Her schizophrenic brother committed suicide when he was 16. Her mother Ellen suffered from dissociative identity disorder that eventually regressed into severe dementia, so severe that she had to move in with Annie and her family in the final years of her life. With her mother dead, Annie is looking to put the past behind her and live a happy life with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff, My Friend Dahmer, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and daughter Charlie (Broadway alum Milly Shapiro, in her feature film debut). Unfortunately, the Graham family suffers yet another tragedy and they are thrown into turmoil, with Annie unsuccessfully trying to put her broken family back together.
Then Ann Dowd (Compliance, HBO’s The Leftovers) enters the picture and everything goes to Hell.
Written and directed by newcomer Ari Aster (his only credits are six short films between 2011 and 2016), Hereditary is an astounding achievement. Aster directs with such a confident hand that you would think this was his twentieth film and not his first. It’s simply mind-boggling that this is his debut feature. From a technical standpoint and a narrative one, Hereditary is masterfully put together and the wait for Aster’s next film will be a long one indeed.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But is it scary? Even though what is deemed scary is subjective, the answer to that question is “yes.” Aster has proven to be adept at staging those scares, employing a variety of scare tactics, including but not limited to: gory imagery, ghostly figures hiding in the background, and floating corpses. Nearly all of them work and send chills up the spine. Refreshingly, Aster realizes that it’s not always about the jump scare, though he does toss a few of those in for good measure. Jump scares aren’t what he is after though. No, Hereditary is all about creeping dread. There are things in this movie that will get under your skin and imagery that will be burned in your mind forever. Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Tragedy Girls) stage a number of tableaus that, if they weren’t so chilling, would make lovely paintings to hang over the fireplace. One particular moment utilizes lighting for a big reveal in such a way that you can’t help but feel the inspiration behind it (that would be John Carpenter’s Halloween, by the way).
Hereditary may be scary, but make no mistake: It. Takes. Its. Time. At just over two hours, the film is essentially divided into two halves. The first of which is a dark family drama (in the Q&A after the screening, Aster referenced Don’t Look Now, Ordinary People and The Ice Storm as inspirations). The second half of the film is where the horror comes in. Well, “comes in” is perhaps too light of a term. A more apt metaphor would be that it steamrolls through the barricaded doors and slaps you in the face. More impatient viewers will no doubt be asking themselves what all the hype was about, but those who are patient will discover that the payoff is more than worth the wait (and to be clear: nothing in that first hour is boring, but if you walk in expecting to be scared right off the bat then you are setting yourself up for disappointment).
More than anything though, Hereditary is a look at how a family handles grief and how others can use that grief against them. The use of grief as a narrative device isn’t as abstract as it is in a film like, say, The Babadook, but it’s absolutely there. After spending an hour with this family at their most vulnerable, the horror becomes more real. You relate to it. That is what makes the horror in Hereditary so effective. It’s nerve-racking stuff.
As mentioned above, Collette gives a tour de force performance. It’s cliché to bring up awards season in a review but in all seriousness: if she doesn’t get any kind of awards recognition it will be a damn shame. She makes Annie a vulnerable, broken women who is still a force of nature. She’s not particularly likable, but she is relatable. The real surprise of the film is Wollf though. He is tasked with what is probably the most emotionally taxing role in the film and he handles it with aplomb. The film belongs to Collette and Wollf and they run a way with it. Byrne, Shapiro and Dowd are all strong in their respective roles, but they are given far less material than Collette and Wollf are.
Truthfully, when the credits rolled I wasn’t sure how I was going to score Hereditary. It is an excellent film with some fantastic performances and excellent direction, but at that moment I didn’t feel like it had blown me away. There are some minor quibbles to be had. There is an awkward attempt at an explanation before shit really hits the fan and the plot is a bit convoluted, but it’s been three days since the screening and I can’t get the damn thing out of my head. Images from the film frequently pop up in my mind. I can’t stop hearing one particular sound effect from the final act (you’ll know it when you hear it). I’m seeing things in the shadows. I didn’t think the film had scared me, but I was very, very wrong. Hereditary will stick with you long after you’ve left the theater. You will want to talk about it. You will want to see it again (I most certainly do). It is a film that will no doubt reward the viewer on repeat viewings, that is if you can stomach it.
A24 will release Hereditary in theaters nationwide on June 8, 2018.