Combining psychological torment with emotional devastation, Hereditary is an inescapably gripping modern day horror masterpiece.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years, the horror genre is in a period of total revitalisation. From the more mainstream friendly, terror inducing trips of Don’t Breathe and It, to the more unconventional independent flicks like The Witch and Get Out, horror is seemingly past the franchise mentality that dominated the early 21st century with films like Saw and Final Destination, and now firmly back on track to recapture the gold standard chills induced by its peak years from the 1960s through to the ’80s. With this revitalisation comes a new generation of voices, writers and directors with unique spins on the genre who read the rule book differently and, half the time, ignore it. Chalk up Ari Aster as another such creative force, and make a place in the hallowed halls of the all time greats for his debut feature length film, Hereditary.
To say too much about the story of Hereditary would be to spoil what is undoubtedly one of 2018’s most unique and startling cinematic experiences. In short, the film tells the story of the Graham family, who, in the wake of reclusive matriarch Ellen’s death, begin to uncover the dark history of their family. Annie (Toni Collette), Ellen’s daughter, works as a miniaturist artist and had a strained relationship with her mother, leading to her relationships with her own children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), to be equally as challenging. Peter in particular clashes with his mother, whilst Charlie, their grandma’s favourite child, often exhibits strange behaviour. This leaves father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) in the middle of the troubled family, attempting to keep peace.
As the anchor to the whole film, Toni Collette’s performance demands a lot from the veteran actress. No stranger to the psychological horror scene herself, having starred in The Sixth Sense, Collette is a commanding presence. In the more measured, quieter moments, she conveys a delicacy to the character and wears the fragile history of Annie perfectly. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, Collette is a force of nature; as Annie explodes with grief, anger and bitterness, the actress effortlessly disappears into the role of an emotionally vitriolic mother. Collette is always a sure bet for a strong performance, she’s at her absolute best in Hereditary. Being cast opposite Collette would undoubtedly be a daunting prospect for many actors, particularly when her performance is of this magnitude, but this allows as showcase for the film’s true breakout performer: Alex Wolff. The complexity of Peter is one of the film’s strongest threads as it progresses, and, as with Collette, it asks a lot of young Wolff, and he delivers. There is a fine line between bratty teenager and emotionally troubled adolescence, but Wolff fortunately stands in the latter’s territory. Like Collette, he is both quiet and loud, his emotional outbursts pack a moving authenticity and intensity. Peter acts as the perfect foil for Annie, their relationship is arguably the film’s most powerful dynamic and the two actors inhabit it with an astonishing gravitas.
It’s hard to not be drawn to Collette and Wolff throughout, but the performances of Milly Shapiro and Gabriel Byrne as the other Graham family members should not be ignored. Byrne’s timid passivity perfectly counteracts his wife’s enormity, slotting into the family dynamic as the internally struggling father trying his best to appease everyone. Shapiro, much like Wolff, is an intriguing performer through simple means, like her facial expressions and simple bodily movements. She’s more muted than the rest, but nonetheless remains a fascinating character. Additionally, veteran actress Ann Dowd gives a superbly understated and integral performance as Joan, a woman whom Annie befriends at a grief support group. Again, to say too much about her character and performance would be to spoil the film, but Dowd undoubtedly delivers what is one of the year’s best supporting turns.
For a debut directorial output, Ari Aster displays a confidence and competency beyond his years – he directs the hell out of this movie. From the first minute, Hereditary is an unbearably tense experience, both absorbing and unnerving, there is such meticulous detail and craft poured into the film that it’s on a near Hitchcockian level. Aster enables every part of the film to crank up the tension; the slow camera movements, the lingering pauses, the sequential editing, the bubbling, quiet music, there is a sense that at any minute a bombshell of terror will be dropped and Aster never lets us go in this prevailing and permanent sense of dread. The Graham family home houses the typical horror features, such as the older, near-gothic decor, the woodwork design and, of course, the room-at-the-end-of-the-corridor-dread. But Aster uses this slight cliche to his advantage. In numerous shots, characters are isolated in the frame, the negative space around them evoking the sense that anything can and will happen to them at any moment, the camera snakes its way along the corridors like an otherworldly presence, and every sound feels enhanced to unsettle the viewer. But Hereditary doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares, its horror and terror is mental and emotional, the film’s story and themes sink their claws in and will affect even the toughest of skins. This is a horror movie about grief, trauma and personal inadequacies. It’s as emotionally potent as it is terrifying.
What Aster has crafted is almost beyond articulation, Hereditary is a genuinely affecting film, both as a piece of horror and as a family drama. A powerhouse film and an almost unbearable experience, led by an outstanding Toni Collette performance and a revolutionary turn from Alex Wolff, Hereditary is a masterpiece of horror, and unquestionably an early front runner as one of the year’s best – Academy, take note.
Hereditary (2018), directed by Ari Aster, screened as part of the 2018 Sundance London Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas on June 15th, distributed by A24, certificate 15.