Each year society is only granted one single horror film that is hailed as ‘the next Exorcist/Blair Witch/Halloween/Psycho/The Shining’. One. To celebrate, we project 365 days’ worth of expectations and excitement onto this picture in the hopes that it will be better than the last one because ‘____ wasn’t even scary’. In the year of our satanic overlord 2018, Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary claims this coveted spot, a brutally reflective and revealing portrait of familial guilt and regret set against an increasingly supernatural backdrop.
When Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) mother dies, it sets off a catalyst of change for her family as they face the repercussions of their grandmother’s private and ritualistic life. Opening with her funeral, Annie eulogises Ellen as a difficult woman, with drippings of spite and grief throughout her speech, uncovering the framework of a tumultuous relationship. Annie worries that she doesn’t feel “sad enough” to husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and it seems like the rest of the family are also quite unfazed, son Peter (Alex Wolff) gazes vacantly into the distance and introvert daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) even takes to her sketchbook to draw her dead grandmother in her open casket.
This strange and uncomfortable grapple with grief is Hereditary’s biggest monster, moving and taking various forms throughout the film. Whether it’s the miniature scenes Annie creates as her life’s work, the bereavement groups she attends, Charlie’s unusual model making or Peter’s recreational drug use, each family member battles their personal issues within the family in their own way. Ellen’s death unearths deep familial trauma that alters and manipulates the Graham’s sense of reality and comfort as more earth-shattering events befall the family, each one more sinister and supernatural than the rest to the point where it’s not certain if the family are losing their minds or if the figures they see haunting them are truly real.
It’s undoubtedly a slow-burner (perhaps too slow), but Toni Collette’s astounding descent into madness, with each scream-face better and more terrifying than the last, is unforgettable. Her performance is akin to those career-defining moments in Rosemary’s Baby and The Babadook. Annie’s realisations about her failings as a parent, resentment towards her mother and even her reluctance to be a mother in the first place is what makes Hereditary genuinely scary; you have no control over your family, you can’t protect them, you can’t save them, do you even truly know them? This is particularly true with Peter, who also undergoes his own mental breakdown in a paranoia fuelled knockout performance from Alex Wolff.
Nightmare imagery of the family’s eventual breakdown makes astounding use of the monumental horror image right from opening shot, nothing ever feels right, always slightly off-kilter and deeply unsettling, with camera work from Pawel Pogorzelski who frames each shot as if it were one of Annie’s own miniatures, blurring the lines of reality even further. It is clear to say that Aster’s film boasts some of the most impressive cinematography of any recent horror film, with sharp editing cuts and looming shots heightening the tension in the film’s terrifying final half hour.
Whilst it is pretty evident that Hereditary has been mis-marketed as a jump-scare marathon, its chilling moments linger with an unforgettable power and blend a clear homage to 60s and 70s horror images along with some modern conventions that mainstream audiences could find campy. This unexpected humour throughout the film is surprising and very uncomfortable, swapping in jumps for a horrible feeling of unease throughout.
It would be a far cry to claim that Hereditary is perfect, the first half could be considered drawn-out and the finale highly comical or cheesy, but as far as debut features go, it is damningly smart and expects more of its audience than is necessary in a market swarmed with uninspired franchise films. Aster solidifies himself as a new contender in independent horror, unearthing masterful performances from Collette and Wolff, choosing to revel in the uncomfortable space when a family falls apart and past traumas are relived.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here