There are very few films like Hereditary that manage to subvert expectations and shatter the boundaries of conventional horror. It has a lot in common with the likes of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: films that terrify disturb and mesmerize in equal measure with their slow-burn build and impending dread.
Before the folk-horror nightmare of Midsommar (2019), Aster’s first feature film showed how mature and deft he was at his craft. He had already cut his teeth on making short films, but Hereditary felt like Aster was a pro who had been making movies for decades.
The initial premise of another demonic possession film would make it easy to dismiss Hereditary. Skepticism quickly turns to awe as the drama unfurls and grips the viewer like a vice, dragging them down an abyss of thought-provoking exploration of grief, madness, and the human condition.
Production Company: A24, PalmStar Media, Finch Entertainment, Windy Hill Pictures
Director: Ari Aster
Release Date: January 21, 2018
Hereditary is a hell of a creepshow that will make your spine tingle and your blood run cold. It’s the kind of film that gets under your skin and stays there like a relentless itch you can’t scratch.
The first frame of Hereditary establishes itself as a horror film of a different breed than the likes of Insidious or The Conjuring franchises. Those films are simplistic and cater to the lowest common denominator when it comes to their scripting and direction.
Hereditary rejects the tired tropes of modern horror films and gleefully toys with expectations and turns overused horror gimmicks on their heads. Opening text is typically sloppy exposition to bring viewers up to speed but Hereditary brilliantly does this in the form of an obituary. The mechanics of this set the tone and convey all the necessary information the audience needs.
The story starts with the Graham family – Annie (Toni Collette), a woman haunted by her past; Peter (Alex Wolff), a troubled teenager, and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a kid with some serious issues. The matriarch of the clan, Ellen- checks out of this world, leaving behind her daughter, Annie, to deal with the aftermath.
Toni Collette plays Annie, and her raw intensity grabs a hold of you and won’t let go. She’s struggling, trying to keep it together, but you know she’s barely holding on by a thread. Her grieving anguish is visceral and borders on being animalistic.
The son, Peter, is portrayed by Alex Wolff. He’s got a haunted look in his eyes. You can tell he’s wrestling with literal demons of his own, and it’s eating him alive. There is one scene in particular where he has one of the rawest thousand-yard stares ever depicted in a horror film and it is impossible to not be transfixed in silent amazement.
Charlie is played by Milly Shapiro. She’s got an eerie presence like she’s dancing with darkness itself. Her uncanny facial structure and complete lack of understanding of social cues will immediately send red flags to anyone watching. It is like she is always hiding something and knows way more than she should.
Gabriel Byrne is Steven, the impotent father who is hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the forces at large. He can’t catch a break and even though he is loving, even he can’t help but become overwhelmed with detachment. Out of his depth, he is almost resigned to his fate.
The demonology in Hereditary is very accurate and is frequently relied on to construct scenes. It is as if the film itself is a demonic ritual. On top of the movie being steeped in real demonic lore, the demonology is also cross-symbolized with the family’s inner turmoil.
Great care and thought were put into the production design and cinematography. Annie is established as a miniature artist and her models are used symbolically throughout the story and also clue viewers in on her mental state.
The devil is in the details and Hereditary has it in spades. In some shots, it becomes hard to tell whether viewers are looking at a miniature or the actual set. Hidden symbols and cryptic messages dance upon her models, signaling a connection to something far more sinister.
Frequent use of tilt-shift photography blurs the lines of reality. The characters are like dolls or puppets to a force far more powerful than they can ever comprehend and all of their fates are sealed. Nobody has any agency and the viewers won’t realize it until they see Hereditary a second time.
Hereditary has some of the most diabolical foreshadowing depicted in a horror film. Charlie has a peculiar affinity for decapitated creatures. A harbinger of the macabre fate that awaits her. From the very outset, we are met with symbols and omens that foretell the impending doom.
The demonic force rips the Grahams apart and the viewer experiences every agonizing moment of it. It’s a haunting reality to bear the weight of such affliction while trying to navigate the tumultuous waters of family life. Little did they know, a sinister cult with malevolent intentions, ready to unleash their wicked machinations upon the unsuspecting souls.
Hereditary is a profoundly rich film that is full of minutia and extremely high rewatch factor. From the set details, production design, and color choices, there is a lot to chew on when diving into the hidden meanings of this film.
The performances are first-rate. Everyone is at the top of their game, but it is Toni Collette who steals the show with her role as Annie. The fact she was not nominated for this performance shows how out of touch the academy is and the unfair disrespect levied at the horror genre.
Hereditary is a masterclass horror film that respects the audience. It is on par with some of the greats like Alien, The Exorcist, and The Shining. Just like those films, Hereditary is a slow-burn watch and its premise is hopelessly bleak.
For some viewers, this film may be too nihilistic to enjoy and may leave them feeling depressed. Horror films should not guarantee a feel-good experience. This is especially the case in a very dramatic story that explores themes of fate in an intelligent way and focuses almost entirely on grounded characters.
Hereditary was reviewed via video-on-demand purchase by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. Hereditary is now available via streaming on Vudu Fandango.