In what is easily the creepiest and most unsettling wide-release horror film since 2015’s Puritan nightmare The Witch, Hereditary, also produced by indie film company A24, manifests a kind of terror that digs under the skin and infects within.
First-time feature writer/director Ari Aster borrows from past films — Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, The Shining — to fashion his own brand of emotionally disturbing storytelling. Aster is almost like Hereditary’s youngest character Charlie (Milly Shapiro), an introverted 13-year-old girl who spends most of her time sketching strange images in a notebook and assembling makeshift toys out of pill bottles, spools of thread and bird body parts. Glue enough weird elements together, and you’re bound to create a scary-looking curiosity.
Aster’s best work comes in the setup of the film where he introduces us to the entire Graham family — Charlie, her older brother Peter (Alex Wolff) and their parents Annie (Oscar nominee Toni Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) — all of whom are mourning the recent death of Annie’s mother. During the first third of Hereditary, Aster, along with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Tragedy Girls) and composer Colin Stetson (Blue Caprice), position the film’s characters in a framework they, or the audience, cannot escape.
This sense of dread found deep inside the bowels of Hereditary is palpable and petrifying. It kicks in soon after the family experiences another death — a shocking one not teased in the trailer — that throws the Grahams into a downward spiral. Overcome with grief, Annie tells strangers in a support group the long history of mental illness in her bloodline. It’s a detail that plays into her personal story as the film pushes forward, revealing a host of uncomfortable scenarios, including ones that center on mental health, trauma and motherhood. With Annie, Collette embodies a woman on the verge of all-out madness and does so in the rawest horror performance since Australian actress Essie Davis’ turn in 2014’s The Babadook.
Where the film falters a bit is during the second act when Aster relies on a handful of tropes one would find in any conventional horror film about an evil entity haunting a family’s home. Do we really need to see a photo of one of the characters with his eyes scratched out to foreshadow his demise or flip through a book on demonology at the last minute to tie up loose ends?
Nevertheless, Hereditary is devastating in its delivery and offers a bloodcurdling look into a hellish, supernatural narrative. Just be ready to live with it for a while.