There are some horror movies that make you jump. There are some that make you squirm. There are the rare ones that raise questions about the human condition. And there are the few horror movies that do all three and manage to conjure images that stick unshaken in your head long after you’ve left the theater. Hereditary is of this latter breed.
To be fair, Hereditary does some of these things much more effectively than others. Namely, the questions it raises about the nature of grief and the things we do or do not say about tragedy fall by the wayside when the film strides confidently into its batty climax. But the grip on suspense is so firm here that the film is a nerve-racking experience from the first shot to the last.
Experiencing this film for the first time in a theater is to fearfully resign oneself to expecting the worst and being continually given the unexpected.
You can look up pictures of Hereditary writer-director Ari Aster and find the image of an affable, toothy-grinned man in a sweater. His is not the first face to spring to mind when you try to picture the person whose mind conjured up the more striking images in this film. (Let’s just say beheading is a prominent motif).
Aster’s vision is rife with intriguing signposts and images. As we watch a family unravel after two tragedies (the first tragedy pointedly less affecting for them than the second), Aster lies out puzzle piece images in odd places. Matriarch Annie (Toni Collette), an artist who creates miniature dioramas, plants increasingly macabre pieces of foreshadowing within her work. Etchings on the walls of their house, presumably scratched in by the daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), show words in an unknown language: “Satony,” “Zazas,” etc. And the same strange symbol, which we first see on the necks of Annie and her deceased mother, pops up again and again.
Ultimately, the experience of piecing images together is more fulfilling than the completed puzzle. The plotting takes us on a journey that abruptly—somewhere in the early second half of the film—becomes more about the end game than the mystery of the present moments. It is apparent to the audience before the characters in the film what is going on around them, but instead of milking the dramatic irony the film decides to explain everything for us again while it brings the characters up to speed.
There is a heady surreality that comes from the mysterious (perhaps supernatural) presence, and the film plays into this force in some entertaining ways. But this other-worldly concept also flattens the true-to-life emotional strife that the characters in the film face.
There is an emotional depth to Annie that is fascinating. Much of this has to do with how this emotion is conveyed by Collette, who is giving the performance of her career in this movie. How Annie deals with grief (and how she chooses not to deal with it) is what makes the film compelling in the first place. When the film steers into a more supernatural place, this emotion is lost.
That said, Hereditary is a masterclass on formal construction vis a vis horror filmmaking. Seemingly every framing, camera movement, edit, and music cue serves the suspense of a given scene. As a result, there is no breathing room from the disquieting sense that the worst is afoot for these characters. Add to this that the film is paced as deliberately as possible, and you have a seat-squirmer of a horror movie on your hands.
It is this deliberate pace that shows us the cracks—again, most of this has to do with plotting—which allow for a scene here and there that elicits a more impatient type of restlessness. For the most part, though, we are given a slow-burn experience that hasn’t been this good in a horror movie since The Witch.
Hereditary does a lot of stuff brilliantly. It juxtaposes stillness with ominous camera movement. It utilizes areas of the frame that are not the focal point of the shot with a restraint that pays off. Its actors embody fear in distinctly natural ways (the devolution of Alex Wolff’s character into a state of infantilization makes for a particularly nuanced performance). The script even successfully uses the pitter-patter banter of background conversation that comes off so awkward in most films, capturing the banality of such conversations and using it to heighten the uneasiness of scenes.
And, of course, the film depicts three or four truly grotesque images and bombards us with them with a cruel brevity, in that they are framed just long enough to form afterimages on our mind’s eye. This is true of all but one of the morbid images, which comes late in the film and arguably stays on screen too long to remain effective.
Hereditary: best horror movie of the year? The conversation starts now.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)