Aside from the upcoming Halloween sequel, there was perhaps no other horror film more anticipated than Hereditary. By the way, Hereditary is director Ari Aster’s debut feature length effort – an impressive feat. The first trailer for Hereditary was absolutely chilling, promising one of the more intense horror experiences in recent memory. As initial reviews hit the Internet, the critical praise was overwhelming, with some reviewers boldly promising this generation’s The Exorcist. Like recent critically-revered horror films, including The Witch and It Comes At Night, Hereditary has initially polarized fans. Early CinemaScores have been brutal, garnering a D-rating. Where does Hereditary fit on this continuum? Critical misfire or nightmarish classic-in-waiting?
It would be criminal to say too much about the story, so I’m going to keep this synopsis brief. Hereditary opens with the funeral of Graham family matriarch, Ellen. Her daughter, Annie, a miniaturist artist, delivers the eulogy, noting that there are many unfamiliar faces in attendance. Annie’s relationship with her mother was challenging, and her husband, Steve, and oldest teen son, Peter, seem relatively unmoved. Over the course of the film, we learn that Ellen was very attached to Annie’s youngest daughter, Charlie, who is deeply affected by her passing. As increasingly strange things begin happening, Annie believes her family has become cursed while her husband fears that she may be suffering from the same mental health problems that afflicted her mother.
Brooding Atmosphere Amid Family Drama
Across the first third of Hereditary, the film plays out as a slow-burn horror film. Aster forgoes narrative exposition for a focus on a brooding atmosphere. Colin Stetson’s brilliantly creepy and omnipresent score and Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography draw early parallels to The Shining. Much of the early portion of the film focuses on the eccentricities of daughter Charlie. This focus doesn’t deliver many jump scares for the audience, but it adds a layer of foreboding strangeness that pays off later.
As Hereditary hits its final act, Aster ratchets up the tension, maintaining an almost constant feeing of dread over the closing 30 minutes.
Not quite halfway through Hereditary Aster pulls the rug out from under the audience, and the film shifts gears. Stetson’s score recedes more into the background and Hereditary almost becomes a family drama about grief and the devastating impact of mental illness. Aster holds his supernatural elements in the background, dropping momentary reminders of the impending threat with lucid scenes that blur the lines between nightmare and reality.
As Hereditary hits its final act, Aster ratchets up the tension, maintaining an almost constant feeling of dread over the closing 30 minutes. I am not exaggerating when I say that I felt uncomfortable and on edge for that entire time. There are familiar horror conventions – shadowy figures emerge in the background of the screen, reflections play tricks, and Aster uses an odd clucking sound made by Charlie to generate some fun jump scares. While these aren’t wholly unique conventions, Aster infuses them with new life.
A Disturbing Conclusion Reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby
Hereditary certainly delivers a nightmarish ride in its third act, but its closing moments are unconventional.
Where Hereditary may loses some of its audience is with its closing 10 minutes. The almost universal critical acclaim for Aster’s debut film promises one of the scariest movies in the last 40 years or so. Hereditary certainly delivers a nightmarish ride in its third act, but its closing moments are unconventional. There is little in the way of expository dialogue. Enough clues are strung along for the audience over Hereditary’s two hours, but its conclusion is subtle and more cerebral. Simply put, it’s an odd ending that doesn’t conform to typical genre expectations.
In addition to adopting a more cerebral approach to its ending, I found the conclusion took a tonal shift, emphasizing the banality of evil, much in the same way as Rosemary’s Baby. In some ways, while the ending is indeed distrusting, it’s a much more quiet disturbing. I saw Hereditary in theatres and the audience was absolutely silent when the credits began scrolling down the screen. Some viewers may be frustrated with the ending. I had a lingering feeling of dread the entire car ride home.
Toni Collette Delivers a Stunning Performance
Hereditary is bolstered by a strong lead cast. Gabriel Byrne quietly shines as the stoic husband and father struggling to hold his family together in the face of tragedy. Young actress Milly Shapiro, playing the odd Charlie, delivers a similarly reserved yet unsettling performance. But make no mistake about it. This is Toni Collette’s film from start to finish. She delivers an emotionally enthralling performance that grounds the film’s supernatural elements in reality. Collette’s dramatic interpretation of a mother losing her family and, possibly her own sanity, is heartbreaking.
Whether Hereditary lives up to the critical hype will largely depend on the viewer. From my perspective, Hereditary is hands down one of the scarier films I have seen in a long time and my early pick for best horror film this year. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone unlike another strong 2018 horror film, A Quiet Place. Aster’s directorial debut is an eccentric, cerebral horror film that some viewers may find frustrating. Hereditary is certainly not a fun, popcorn thriller and will likely have an easier time building its status as a horror classic on Blu-ray and streaming platforms.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: A+