For a directorial debut, Ari Aster certainly brought the heat. If this is a sign of what is to come, then the horror genre will continue to have great films from him for many years. Hereditary is the latest in a line of critically-acclaimed horror films. It Follows, The Babadook, and The Witch have started a renaissance of sorts for the horror genre, with minor hits like Hush and Starry Eyes also contributing. Yet many audiences have been divided on these films, and are again with Heredity. Modern big studio horror movies rely entirely on jump scares and cheap thrills to get its so-called scares; people who enjoy that are often bored by this more patient kind of prestige horror.
While I enjoyed all of the films I named above, it did take multiple viewings for me to really get into them. The critical praise perhaps overhyped them for me, and expectations weren’t met immediately. But with Hereditary, it only took one viewing for the thrills and chills to tiptoe down my spine. I can think of no modern horror movie that has grabbed me more immediately and delivered goosebumps in quite this way.
Hereditary follows your typical upper-middle class family: husband (Gabriel Byrne), wife, son, and daughter. The wife (Toni Collette) has just lost her mother and in an early scene describes her rather lackluster relationship with her at her wake. Yet, as with many of the scenes in the film, Aster is quietly laying out information that will help make the crazy ending make sense. The notion of family struggles provides the core of the horror for the first half of the film. But if you’re rolling your eyes at what sounds like a conventional drama set-up, you’d be mistaken. Aster’s script doesn’t hold back the ugly realities of family conflict, and anyone with a complicated relationship with their parent or child may find some of the scenes hitting too close to home.
Aster’s direction is fantastic and his work with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski creates one of the most visually dynamic horror films in recent memory. Collette’s character creates miniature models of her home and other real life situations. These models are eerily close to life, and Aster plays on their creepiness throughout the film. The opening shot zooms in slowly on a model of their home and into the bedroom of the daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and seamlessly blends into the real life version. Its a fantastic shot and preview of the great camerawork to come. The camera glides through the film to create flowing visuals, yet with all of the restraint you’d expect from an experienced director’s work, it also pauses for long takes to emphasize the horror and build tension.
All of the great visuals would be for naught if Aster didn’t understand how to scare his audience. Luckily, Aster has known how to upset people since his debut short film, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. He plays up the creepiness that his actors can convey. As supernatural elements slowly begin to infuse the film, the movie becomes unnerving and eventually wonderfully insane. The simple clicking sound from the tongue of Charlie unexpectedly becomes one of the creepiest sounds in recent horror cinema to the point where audience members were mimicking it in the theater to scare their fellow patrons.
Collette’s talent has been clear since she received an Oscar nomination for her role in The Sixth Sense, and even before that in films such as Muriel’s Wedding. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call her performance in Hereditary a tour de force as she runs a gamut of emotions throughout the film. She can generate sympathy for her sorrow, leave you shrinking in your seat when she unleashes her rage, and freak you out in other scenes. Were it not the Academy’s general underappreciation for genre work, I would call her a lock for an Oscar nom again. Even more surprising is the great work from young actor Alex Wolff. I’ve known the Wolff brothers since my youth when they were on the Nick show The Naked Brothers Band. Wolff has matured as an actor and had a competent if light turn in the recent Jumanji soft reboot. The range of his acting is on full display here as starts in the role of a typical movie teenager before revealing a depth of fear and pain. Ann Dowd shows up halfway through the film and delivers a strong yet low-key turn as a fellow grief-stricken mother to Collette.
Hereditary isn’t perfect, despite the unending praise thus far. Some of the acting reaches extremes that nearly teeter over into parody. Indeed, many members of my audience would laugh at scenes that were intended to leave you reeling. While I largely attribute this to the damage that lowbrow horror has wrought on the brains of audiences, perhaps Aster left one too many sorrowful cries from Wolff in the film’s final cut. It was highly effective for me, but others may find it excessive.
Small nitpicks are the most I can level at Hereditary. Beautifully shot and featuring a talented cast, Aster’s film deftly explores themes of grief and the social unit of the family. The pain and sorrow and the many harrowing scenes of shouting might be overwhelming for some, as it is for the characters. Collette’s character seeks out a grief-therapy group because she feels unable to confide in her family. Wolff nearly drowns in his grief and anger. Gabriel Byrne finds himself helpless and struggles to keep the crumbling structures of his family together. By the time the supernatural comes to bear full force, Hereditary has already left you shaking for a full hour.
Bringing in an estimated $13 million this weekend, Hereditary is now the largest opening for an A24 film so far. A24 continues to have a near impeccable record at distributing original and compelling cinema, especially for genre fans. Hereditary is another winner from the young intelligent production company. Just be careful not to lose your head while watching.