Bob Foster

Hereditary uses grief and guilt to build a terrifying film [review]

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Directed by: Ari AsterScreenplay by: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro
Production companies: Palm Star Media; Distributed by A24


Release date June 8, 2018
Running time 127 minutes
Rated R for Horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use, and brief graphic nudity.

At its core, Hereditary is a film about grief and guilt; how they can combine into a blackhole of nasty, dark emotional despair.  Guilt and grief are tough emotions to get past; they can stop people in their tracks, in their lives. It is deeply unsettling, done well it reaching into the viewer and grabs the heart and wrenches it out. This drives Hereditary, as it does The Babadook, Don’t Look Now, and Anti-Christ. Hereditary is deeply emotional. Many may call it despair-porn, laying more and more on it’s already harried characters until the break. There is simmering tensions, everyone involved is going through a personal hell of resentment; swallowing it, letting it fester instead of release. There is little levity; even the more positive scenes have darkness hiding in the darkness at the edge of the screen.  Like the exceptional, and underseen, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Hereditary is unsetting and scary without the supernatural. Adding horror makes it terrifying.

And it is.  It’s not hyperbole to state Hereditary is the scariest film in a very long time. Thanks to the emotional core, the set-ups and pay-offs have a heft. It’s not a safe film, by any means, events and actions knock the emotionally terrified viewer off balance. I, a life long horror fan, didn’t see where the film was going; was chilled to the bone, and legitimately terrified as the film progressed. Aster takes the film to eleven, moving well past the expectations of the majority of moviegoers into a wonderfully bonkers ending. As understanding of story shifts, the bottom falls out in story-expectations leading to some truly messed up disturbing imagery. Along with Annihilation, I’m glad to have two wide-releases go for broke this year, embracing the weird; even if it leaves many viewers behind. Aster doesn’t hold hands, letting the reveals of each part and the whole come to the audience as they happen. Far more disturbing that way.

Aster has a solid sense of design to build atmosphere and tension. Hereditary is especially well designed. A mere shot, with nothing spooky directly in the scene, is enough to disturb. Collette’s Annie creates miniatures, dioramas from her life; dollhouses of her grief. It’s fitting Annie makes model houses. They litter her real home, broken down dissections of family life, incomplete reflections of the whole home.   Aster uses this concept to often frame the film as if we are looking into miniatures, albeit populated by the occupants of the house; framed to be overwhelmed by their set; seeing the edges; feeling just not-right. Underlit, dark interiors reflect the internal emotions of the characters. I want to rave about the wonder of the sound design; but I can’t without spoiler talk. So let it stand the way sound is used is a major strength and sells some of the scariest and heartbreaking moments. There is a feeling of the best of 70s horror. I’ve mentioned Don’t Look Now already, but there are reflections of The Exorcist (and a moment of the 1990 third entry), The Sentinel, and others. Horror is a reflexive genre; continually looking back on what makes earlier films work and reusing in a new ways to cause terror.

This wouldn’t work without a strong cast.  Toni Collette anchors the film as the new matriarch Annie. She’s broken and can’t figure how to fix herself; still processing the loss of her estranged but yet overbearing mother. Her mother is dead, but has not gone. Her family is no help, husband Gabriel Byrne is distant and at the end of his patience. Alex Wolff’s teenage son is distant, growing more sullen and away as the film progresses.  Finally, Charlie; the troubled 13 year old daughter played by Millie Shapiro. A Broadway actress (she won a Special Tony as the titular Matilda) in her first screen role in a wonderfully odd, endearing performance. Also notable is Ann Dowd is on a roll, with a few notable scenes in American Animals, shines through in her handful, but very important, scenes.

Hereditary is continually and profoundly disturbing.  Aster wrenches extreme tension from the darkest of emotions plaguing his well-written characters.  Hereditary refuses to play safe, embracing it’s darkness- barrelling into a truly terrifying finale.  The hype from Sundance is real; Hereditary is this year’s, decades?, scariest film.



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