Modern moviegoers are at a disadvantage when it comes to horror classics. Some of the scariest horror movies ever made feel like esoteric relics now—“The Exorcist” has become the first sign that creepy little girls would oversaturate the genre; “The Shining” a slow-burn that doesn’t shock like the jump scare machines of today. Modern horrors tend to fall into two distinct camps: those that evoke disturbing implications (“The Witch”), and those that frighten in the moment (“The Conjuring”). Few movies deftly synthesize the two. But now “Hereditary” has, and perhaps we should’ve been careful what we wished for.
Director/writer Ari Aster is no stranger to family. He courted controversy with his debut short film “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons”, a ruthless story about a son who sexually abuses his father. His output in the following years mocked the notion that his tone would lighten, even including a Pixar-style short film about a mother who poisons her son so he can’t leave for college. “Hereditary”, Aster’s first feature film, continues the lineage of familial horror and his descent into darkness. Aster has attested that it’s a “very personal film.” Perhaps he should be a stranger to his family.
Mothers again take the center of Aster’s dreadful stage. After Annie’s stringent and secretive mother Ellen passes away, she experiences relief rather than grief, and turns her gaze to her kids in an attempt to refocus an exhausted life. Not that it’d be a relaxing task: she and her son Peter have a curiously broken relationship, and her daughter Charlie is a social outcast who spends her time making figurines out of household items and decapitated pigeons.
But as the film’s title suggests, some of Ellen’s more wicked proclivities may have seeped into the familial culture. Things go wrong, things go bump in the night, but most of all—things get horrifyingly relatable.
For worse and for worst, “Hereditary” is a thematically rich movie. Its subtext is just as horrific as the proverbial ghosts and ghouls. The golden rule of indie movies should be that viewers ought to pay special attention during classroom scenes (especially if a classic work of literature is being examined), because the movie is likely expositing its themes out loud. Indeed, “Hereditary” hints at its hidden message during a high school discussion of Herakles: when times are tragic, is it worse to have free will or to surrender to fate?
Combining this question with the film’s title gives one a pretty good idea of Aster’s intent. “Hereditary” is a brutal meditation on the fatalism of family. Through events that are just as traumatic for the audience as they are for the characters, the movie depicts how grief and blame set off the nuclear family—and how the resulting devastation may be biologically inevitable. Aster uses that as groundwork to divulge more, but further thematic revelation would be spoiler territory. Rest assured that the lighting, cinematography, set design, and sound mixing work equally in service of subtext and scares.
There’s an imbalance of narrative and theme when “Hereditary” transitions into its inconceivably terrifying third act. It slightly obscures its message as the haunting rushes to its climax, trading subtlety for abject fear. It’s hard to ponder this obstruction when your soul is leaving your body from pure fright, though—the last act features grotesque imagery that will be permanently seared into your brain. It will keep you up at night.
And not just because it’s expertly shot to horrify you: Toni Collette’s performance is staggering. Her ability to possess personalities both realistic and frenetic is chilling to the bone, and she unequivocally deserves a Best Actress nod for her work here. Alex Wolff stands his own next to her, emitting reactions that are unsettlingly raw.
Watching “Hereditary” must be like what watching “The Exorcist” felt like when it was first released. It’s deeply upsetting, depressing, repulsive, and all too real. It’s the kind of groundbreaking horror that sets a new bar. And it’s a directorial debut! Wherever Ari Aster goes from here, I might not want to follow—it’s going to take a long time to recover from “Hereditary”.