This is it, people: the next great horror film has arrived, and it is without question one of the most terrifying genre pieces you’re bound to see in your lifetime. Industry newcomer Ari Aster thoroughly flabbergasts in his directorial debut with a brutal, torturous hell-ride in the wrappings of a refined dramatic picture. Hereditary taps into basic human feelings of guilt and self-loathing, and directly seizes underlying anxieties in a merciless spectacle of horrors that will infect your psyche long after the credits roll. And that’s before any of the demons show up.
For those who haven’t noticed, horror is having a moment right now. One of the best films from last year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, employed shared fears among African Americans living in a predominantly white culture to deliver not only a blood-curdling thriller, but a crucial lesson in unconscious prejudice. Last September, the Stephen King adaptation It was an unprecedented box office monster, and became the highest-grossing horror film of all time. In March, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place was a similar runaway hit, grossing over $320 million worldwide.
And now we have Hereditary: a terrorizing achievement for which Oscar attention is imperative, even if that may be all but impossible to achieve. If there is one thing that all these films have in common, it’s that they come from directors who are either entirely new to the medium, or who are largely untried novices. Another running theme is that horror doesn’t have to come from a social outsider like Rob Zombie – the craft can come from anyone. Before approaching the genre, Jordan Peele was known as a comedian, while John Krasinksi frequented roles like Jim Halpert.
Before Hereditary, Ari Aster, whom The Verge describes as “quiet and thoughtful…for lack of a better term, nice,” built a resume of dramatic shorts such as The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. The extremity of the content in his first full-length feature might come as a shock given his reserved demeanor, but will come as less of a surprise when considering his first work behind the camera explored domestic sexual abuse. Aster’s immaculate attention devoted to every frame, as well as his master manipulation of the subconscious, however, is utterly unforeseeable.
Toni Collette stars as Annie Graham in an uncompromising, no-holds-barred performance that is already generating Oscar buzz. Annie works from home creating intricate dioramas. Her reclusive mother, with whom she shared a tumultuous relationship, just passed away. Annie’s daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) was very close with her mother, and the grandma’s death only worsens Charlie’s odd and withdrawn behavior. Things are mostly going well with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), but she frequently clashes with her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff).
The family certainly has their share of problems before the matriarch’s passing, but Ellen’s death is the catalyst for widespread turmoil that includes another household tragedy, as well as uncovering disturbing secrets involving the grandmother’s secret life. Part of the brilliance here is that Aster’s film, which he also wrote himself, is a shocking, disquieting exploration of shame and paranoia before any of the supernatural elements kick in. When they do, they feel out of place in what Aster confidently establishes as a ghastly descent into the vile in its own right.
And in fact, it’s slightly disappointing; because once the more outlandish ingredients such as séances, possession, and pagan rituals file in, these genre clichés almost feel like a betrayal of Aster’s original intent, as well as a missed opportunity. Hereditary works exceptionally well in its early portions as a scare-fest of the cerebral, and could have been a legendary triumph for the category had it gone that route. And yet, Aster approaches these ubiquitous tropes with such profound seriousness and unwavering resolve, you’ll be too distracted gripping your seat to care.
Once the concept is fleshed out and all the cards are on the table, it becomes abundantly clear that Hereditary is birthed from an acute reverence for genre bests including The Exorcist, The Wicker Man, and especially, Rosemary’s Baby. Rather than committing to familial dysfunction as the primary antagonist, or even mulling lesser-trodden ground in evoking the superstitious, Hereditary opts to offering genre enthusiasts more of the familiar. Because of this, Hereditary falls agonizingly short of masterpiece status, and won’t stand amongst the ranks of those above.
However, this is a minor complaint, because the execution of such prevalent content here is among the best to grace the screen. For example, seldom do horror films offer such laudable performances, particularly Toni Collette’s alarming dedication to Annie’s psychological unraveling. Alex Wolff is similarly captivating as Peter goes through the stages of hell, as is Gabriel Byrne as Steve, whose concerned skepticism grounds the chaos. Hereditary may be prone to imitation, but Aster’s magnificent direction renders it just as I said: the next great horror film.