The revival of horror on the mainstream circuit in the last couple of years is something I am certainly grateful for. The recent upsurgence has all but restored the waning audience faith in a genre long thought to have run its course among everyone except the most stalwart of fans. All of a sudden, we are reminded of what a horror experience at the cinema can be and it paves the way for new and old directors alike to explore this dark horse genre.
However, even amongst the positivity I harbour for this new movement in horror, I struggle to escape the feeling that the candidates responsible for this particular resurgence are still held back from being truly extraordinary by convention and a certain pop culture pandering. If one was charged with putting together a compilation of our current horror zeitgeist and call that collection ‘NOW that’s what I call Horror!’ one could easily place Get Out, A Quiet Place and IT on that pantheon and people would generally agree that they deserve their place. However (continuing on this metaphorical trend), if these films are our current pop-star darlings then Hereditary comes along like a fresh genre-bending band that tears through the popular imagination and shows us what a scam the pop industry has been all this time.
Helmed by first time director Ari Aster, Hereditary follows the Graham family in the wake of the tragic passing of the matriarch Ellen Graham. As explained in the first five minutes, the grandmother of this family was mysterious, withholding and all-together manipulative and has left a rather dirty mark on the family. The family is composed of straight-man dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne), on-the-edge mother Annie (Toni Collette), weird made-for-horror daughter (Milly Shapiro) and moody teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff). The family lives in a fantastic house in rural Utah where the lifestyle of the family seems to be funded by Annie’s work as a miniatures artist who specialises in producing fantastically detailed dioramas. This house serves as the lynchpin for most of the horrific happenings throughout the film and is captured gorgeously throughout the running time. But no matter how lovely the setting, the family itself is haunted by tragic and terrible events from the past and soon the family is tormented by strange happenings in their own home and lives. I won’t say any more on the story.
Trust me here: go in cold and let it happen to you.
And I say ‘let it happen to you’ because I mean it. You don’t watch this film so much as experience it happening to you. The films starts out familiar enough. Any person who has seen a fair amount of horror films will recognise the seemingly well-tread ground that the film presents in its opening minutes. It sets up a gamut of tropes we have come to expect from everything including haunted-house films to satanic worship films to possession films. The director seems very aware of audience expectations regarding these horror conventions however, since about thirty minutes into Hereditary the story presents us with a dastardly event that effectively shocked me to my core. With this turn of events Aster lets the audience know that this film is not going to play out like you have been led to believe. From that point onwards the director takes off his gloves and starts punching with bare fists and I felt every blow. My head was spinning from what I had seen and the film uses that momentum to sharpen its knife and to cut very deep indeed.
The film already starts with dread-filled tension but toward the end of the first act, this effect is compounded with one of the most oppressively heart-wrenching atmospheres I have felt in a long time. The family deals with tragedy, loss, guilt and dysfunction on an unimaginable scale and you sure as hell feel it. I don’t mind admitting that the palpable air of grief in the first act had me crying for a good 10 minutes at a point. In addition to this, the dynamic of the family is explored in a very effective manner. This is a family that has waded so far out in the sea of tragedy and emotional misunderstanding that there is really no turning back. We all understand how complicated the web of family can feel, how the compounded years of repression and miscommunication can build and this film manages to capture it brilliantly. Between the relentless oppressive atmosphere and the all-too-realistic familial dynamic, there is more than enough realistic drama here to keep the film grounded and make audiences feeling uncomfortable in the process.
But all of this work would be for nought if the cast couldn’t pull their weight. Every review you are likely to see on this film will probably comment on the acting turns presented by lead actress Toni Collette and the rest of the cast. And let me tell you, this is unbelievably well deserved. Collette delivers a performance so varied and emotive it leaves you breathless. She is supported excellently by the rest of the cast and each actor fills their role perfectly. The rather thankless straight-man that Byrne delivers in opposition to Collette elevates her performance perfectly whilst the two younger actors hold their own well in the unfolding madness. When considering the paces the actors are put through as the film progresses (especially toward the end) the cast does a stellar job of selling both the dramatic character acting and the horrific events that surround them.
The cinematography of the film is superb and should also be commented on as it serves both as a visual feast and possibly the philosophical treatise of the film. From the opening shot, it is established that there is an interplay between the miniature dioramas that Annie builds and the real life of the family. There are more than a few shots throughout the running time where the actors are framed as miniatures in their own home in gorgeous wide-angle shots. This filmic treatment is particularly effective in showcasing the claustrophobic and immense historical web that the family is stuck in, but also foreshadows the fact that no matter that the family does, they are also trapped in whatever evil machinations are chosen for them. The other interesting thing about the use of these wide-angle shots is that often the director hides the things supposed to frighten us in plain sight. We might only notice these elements after staring at the screen for a while. This scare delivery is so much more effective than “things jumping out from the shadows” and I am glad for the restraint with which most of the scares are delivered in this film.
Is Hereditary a perfect film? No. It struggles to juggle its pacing, its winking use of familiar horror tropes and information reveals, and leads to a rather sluggish second act filled with a little misdirection and a confused identity as to exactly which type of horror film it wants to be. The ending may or may not be to everyone’s liking. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
Having said that, is Hereditary one of the best horror films to come out on the mainstream circuit in recent memory? YES. Absolutely. Hereditary is almost exactly what I am looking for in a horror film. It has an overarching series of events that encompasses the poor characters fully and as the film progresses the hopelessness of their situation only becomes more and more pronounced. This film shows you things you will not expect to see and sears those images unforgivingly upon your unsuspecting psyche by breaking narrative taboos. It offers an intriguing and multi-layered mythology that only expands and reveals its depths upon reflection and allows for meaningful discussion after the film. It contains interesting characters and real human drama, inter-spliced with unnerving and effective horrific elements.
The film holds you hostage long after the credits stopped rolling and I am almost certain no-one can walk out of the cinema without being affected. If you are planning to go and see this film, be warned that there are events shown here that may be very emotionally and psychologically disturbing depending on your personal experiences and particular set of issues. This is a film so much more deeply shocking than many casual filmgoers will be prepared for and I think that it will unsettle and disturb a lot of people. As a result, I am certain Hereditary will be a rather divisive movie-going experience to many. However, if you are looking for a film that will deliberately rip your mind and heart apart and replace it with a sense of dread and terror, go and watch this film as soon as you can. I doubt you will find a more satisfying horror experience in cinemas this year. I give this film a bloody nose out of ten.
Hereditary is in cinemas from 15 June 2018.
Emerging artist and lecturer working in South Africa. Interested in messes, horror, existentialism and the creative process. Ink is my spirit medium.