OnScreen Review: "Hereditary"

Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

If the D+ Cinemascore is any indication, people need to prepare one of two ways for seeing Hereditary. General mainstream audiences tend to have certain expectations of a movie in the horror genre. If a movie is marketed as the best horror movie of the year, that also tends to put certain expectations in people’s minds. And when a horror movie refuses to conform to the generally agreed upon ideas of what a horror movie is supposed to be, audiences tend to reject them. Hereditary is not a mainstream horror movie. In a lot of ways it is a throwback but also its own unique thing. If that is of interest to you, then you need to prepare for an unnerving viewing experience. I thought I was prepared, and I was wrong.

Hereditary is the type of film that I am reluctant to get into too much detail on for fear of giving away too much about not only the plot but also the scares. To only shade in the most basic details, a family of four is burying their grandmother, whose daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), had a strained and dysfunctional relationship with her. Annie’s family has experienced tragedy for most of her life; it is revealed that her father starved himself when she was young and her brother hanged himself as a teenager, blaming their mother. In the wake of this loss, Annie, her dutiful husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and their two children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), begin to experience things that cause the family to slowly break down and reveal hidden secrets about the grandmother.

Sitting with this film for a day now, I have had several other films pop into my head as touchstones of comparison that may help others understand what kind of film this is without getting into great detail about it. There are three that stand out to me, one classic and two more recent releases: Rosemary’s Baby, The Babadook, and The Witch. While Hereditary reminded me of aspects of these films, director Ari Aster’s debut feature film is by no means referencing those films but is doing its own thing. It has its own visual aesthetic (more on that in a minute) and there were no direct references to these other movies. But it left me thinking about similar themes and character dynamics, where it seems that people around the family may have ulterior motives and where the family dynamic slowly disintegrates to where a family member can no longer be trusted by other family members. Basically, the ties that bind Annie, Steve, Peter, and Charlie are frayed one by one until they begin to break.

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At the center of it all is a commanding performance from Toni Collette. I frankly cannot think of the last performance in a horror film that garnered an Oscar nomination, but at this point, I think her performance is worthy of consideration (Perhaps Natalie Portman’s performance in Black Swan comes closest, a performance that maybe also shares some similarities to Collette’s role here). She gives a wide-ranging performance in this film as a mother struggling to cope with grief and loss and a gamut of emotions in the wake of death, but also family bitterness over unsaid things that bubble to the surface due to past incidents, and then finally fighting to protect her family in the face of a supernatural threat that she unwittingly unleashes on them. She gets put through an emotional wringer, and the film has a lot of closeups of her face in various states of shock and horror.

I mentioned the visual aesthetic of this film, and it’s another aspect of the film that deserves some kind of Oscar consideration, either in set design or cinematography. Annie is an artist who builds miniatures of real life moments. In fact, the opening of the film has the camera slowly zoom in on a miniature of a house and an upstairs bedroom until it eventually turns into Peter’s real bedroom where his father comes in to wake him up. It’s a beautiful shot and a great visual trick, but it’s also an indication of what the rest of the film is going to look like. We see a lot of shots of the various miniature models that Annie works on, but the film copies this into the set design. So many of the interior scenes of the film look like they are being filmed in a life-sized version of a miniature model. This adds to the unsettling nature of the film. Not only does it make it seem like things are off, but it also lends credence to the growing notion that there are forces at work beyond what this family can see and that we as an audience are only catching glimpses of, like the recurrence of a symbol that the grandmother had on her necklace, or weird words discreetly scrawled on the walls of their house. Props also to the cinematography of the film by Pawel Pogorzelski, as the film employs several jump cuts from day to night or night to day that also contribute to the feeling of unbalance that the film is projecting. And then, as if the film needed more, there is a recurring theme of decapitation that begins with Charlie cutting the head of a dead bird off at school for a creepy doll she is creating.

All of it builds the tension and atmosphere, which Aster is more than willing to be patient with. I suspect that this is where the film loses many of the “D+ crowd.” Even I almost reached my breaking point; when I started to wonder if things were ever going to kick into high gear is when the final spiral of everything begins. There is one truly shocking moment early on that caused me to audibly gasp, but aside from this moment and a few other indications that things are not safe or ok, the film is almost withholding of the things people typically love in their horror movies until the last third of the film. But when it does turn it on, it just turns completely crazy. You could liken the film to a frog in a slowly boiling pot, the frog stays in the water and never realizes that it is boiling and he should get out until it’s too late.

Despite its D+ Cinemascore, I have no qualms about loving Hereditary. It is the kind of film that is not safe and stuck with me as I left the theater. Toni Collette shines as the mother at the center of this slowly unraveling family. We’re not even at the halfway point of 2018 yet, but all other horror movies have their work cut out for them if they want to stake a claim to the best horror film of 2018. And it’s quite the debut feature from director Ari Aster.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars