A lot of hype has surrounded the release of Hereditary, the hotly anticipated debut feature from independent filmmaker Ari Aster.
Causing a storm at Sundance Film Festival in January of this year, it has been a long wait for the regular movie goer to sink their teeth into this slice of modern horror cinema. From A24, the same studio that brought us the underrated The Witch among many other great modern horrors recently, Hereditary was in good hands, and crafted by Aster’s even better ones.
Hereditary begins with the aftermath of the death of one family’s matriarch, Ellen, who is survived by her daughter, Annie (Toni Colette), grandchildren Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and their father Steve (Gabriel Byrne).
Annie is unsure how to cope with the death of her mother with whom she shared a rocky relationship and who seemed to always prefer her granddaughter Charlie over her. The family plunges into a strange wave of grief, with Charlie seemingly suffering the most and also sensing a presence around her. Ellen’s secrets begin to unravel while the family attempt to cope with her loss.
As with all the classic horrors from decades past, Hereditary is very much a family drama disguised as a horror film. Made in the same vain as films such as The Exorcist, The Shining, Don’t Look Now and Rosemary’s Baby, it is a slow burner which tests its audience before releasing the terror that awaits in the final act.
It builds its story arc through the different relationships between the characters, especially each of the family members, and invokes a large dose of emotional hits throughout before it begins to make your skin crawl.
The only inkling of things heading down a darker road in these early stages is shown through the creations of Annie, who creates miniature sculptures for a living. She recreates horrific events of her past in her studio, and the audience are forced to linger over these childlike figurines in awful situations quite regularly. Small details and clues are scattered like breadcrumbs over most of the film, and when you finally reach the reveal, everything comes together perfectly.
Most horror films of late rely solely on jump scares, and the anticipation is worse than the scare itself – but that’s not what Hereditary is going for. Few films these days can keep an audience feeling unsettled from the get go, but Hereditary truly achieves this. Even the clicking of Milly Shapiro’s tongue, littering the sound of the movie is enough to keep the audience feeling incredibly uncomfortable.
Whilst there are the odd shocks and unexpected turns through the first two thirds of the film, most of the horror is saved up to the end and relentlessly churns out the scares from then on. Very much in the style of many Asian horror films, it has an almost cathartic payoff, albeit making for extremely uncomfortable and disturbing viewing.
Toni Collette, whilst not known for her horror acting chops outside of The Sixth Sense, is perfectly cast as grieving mother Annie. Having focussed mostly on independent dramas of late, she has mastered her skills in conveying different emotions, and Aster places her front and centre, allowing her to completely let loose. She ranges from complete composure to frenetic and wild, sometimes even instantly and it is mesmerising to watch.
Milly Shapiro is also one to look out for as curious daughter Charlie. Despite being a newcomer, there has been a lot of attention on her role in the film and she doesn’t disappoint. Her unique looks play well into the underlying story of the film and make her one of the best parts about it.
Alex Wolff is more questionable. He is great as the moody teenage son, drifting into drugs and alcohol as he comes of age, but as soon as he needs to show any weakness or vulnerability it becomes almost laughable. At times this can distract from some of the most intense parts of the film and somewhat lessens the impacts of big shocks to come.
Ultimately, Hereditary is most certainly going to be considered a modern horror masterpiece. It is a disturbing film which manages to burn certain images in your mind. It sucks you in and spits you out into a pit of unrelenting despair.
Hereditary is challenging but rewarding, weird but entertaining, and, most importantly, incredibly eerie. Despite some small negatives, it is a must-see for any true horror fan. We give it four stars.
Hereditary is still currently showing in cinemas. Watch the trailer below, if you dare…