For the while, horror felt like the redheaded stepchild of the film world, that no one talked about. Nowadays, at almost any time, the internet is filled with countless debates over what “is” or “isn’t” horror. The notion that such a topic can be trivialized so easily, is an unfortunate one. Further more, the very fact that filmmakers are scared to own up to the roots of their film, for fear of box office disparity, is even more disheartening. All of this is happening as a handful of films, including The Neon Demon, It Follows, The VVitch or The Babadook (most from A24, no less), make horror more relevant than ever. For those who do venture into Hereditary though, there’s no question as to which genre it belongs.
Assured. That’s the key word when discussing Hereditary. That and shocking. Those two words are tantamount. Or astounding. Yes. Assured, shocking and astounding. Only those three words are needed when talking about what makes Hereditary such an effective film. What Ari Arster does in his directorial debut is nothing short of impressive (Ok. So, that’s four then). Confident, mean, dense and weird as hell, this one has “instant classic” written all over it.
The Graham family is at a loss. Though the family matriarch has passed, they’re hard pressed to show it effects them, at all. For Mom, Annie (Toni Collete), it’s as if a weight has been lifted. So controlling was her late mother, she’d even went so far as taking over breastfeeding duties when Annie’s youngest daughter, Charlie (Millie Shapiro), was born. Either through supernatural forces or despair, the Graham house shifts in grandma’s absence. The family thinks nothing of it, because in the history of movies, grandma’s with secret pasts never come back to haunt anyone.
Around about thirty minutes in, a scene comes along and sucks all the air out of the room. Instead of then allowing the audience to exhale, the frame lingers on what’s just transpired. And then it keeps holding. And keeps holding….Until several minutes have passed. In that instance, anyone viewing Hereditary knows nothing else can be taken at face value. From then on, all bets are off. It’s a cold, cruel and devastating subversion, yet also shows a level of confidence, in what’s being done behind the camera. A move that almost feels cruel to dance around, as it’s a decision worth celebrating. One which pales in comparison to how the rest of the story plays out.
Part of what ties everything together is here, a handful of amazing performances. The two that trump all others though, are Toni Collete and Gabriel Byrne, who also serve as executive producers here. Byrne has the tricker of the two roles. As a quiet and reserved husband, he stays well past someone’s breaking point, out of genuine love for his family. Any praise he’ll receive is sadly short lived, as he shares the screen constantly with Collette. An accomplished actress with a predilection for conflicted mothers and characters teetering on the edge of sanity, she absolutely demolishes any and all scenery around her. Don’t be surprised if weeks after release people are clamoring for awards in her honor. It’s the kind of role that actors dream of, but so rarely are found in films of this nature.
Good horror is often akin to a magic trick. All seemingly pertinent information is dolled out upfront. Even if it’s not entirely understood at first, or comes off as background noise. Only a brilliant combination of misdirection and showmanship are needed to dazzle an audience. The beauty’s not limited to the execution, but a film that’s just as mindful of the words it uses, as with the visual tools it paints with.
Hereditary understands the conventions of its sandbox. Even exploiting them, when necessary. Instead of relying on jump scares, Aster has rooms lit just this side of dim, barely concealing what’s hiding in the corner. Yet it just stands there. He understands the terror knowing something is there and anticipating its action, is far more terrifying than something leaping out. So he holds on these moments for what feels like an eternity. Like a mean spirited never-ending joke. Featuring the most sinister of punchlines imaginable.
Hereditary is the kind of horror movie that’s sure to divide most audiences. It doesn’t conform to the normal everyday Hollywood standards. It’s more than content to move at its own pace. Something that’s sure to rankle more than a few film-goers. And that’s fine. The fact that this movie exists is enough of a win. This may sound just a tad hyperbolic, but after months and months of waiting, the hype from early festivals proves to be true. Hereditary really is one of the the most terrifyingly eerie films in recent memory. Strap yourself in tight, as this one is going to stay with you for days.