A24 continues its mean streak of unrelentingly interesting horror films, merging The Exorcist, The Witch and The Shining into pure cinematic nightmare fuel.
From its opening frames, Hereditary digs its claws into you and doesn’t let go. A long, slow tracking shot pans across the workroom of Annie Graham (Toni Collette), an artist whose specialty is meticulous, miniature model recreations of homes, settings and events from her life. The camera pans over to a pitch-perfect recreation of her family’s looming, three-story country home dwarfed by God-high trees, pushing in on the room of her son Peter (Alex Wolff) in an effortless, disorienting transition to the real thing. These are people effectively living and moving in a dollhouse, one in which we can figuratively see every room, every move they make, every dark thing that might lie in wait for them.
It’s a heavy burden, but an exciting one, and it reflects the kind of power a horror audience can feel over the characters they see – a sense of inevitability on par with the Greek tragedies mentioned in one portentous high school lecture early in the film. What will happen to this family is unstoppable – all we are left to do is watch, peering through half-lidded eyes or between our fingers. In one single opening shot, writer/director Ari Aster arms his captive audience for two hours of that same feeling, which is a big part of what makes Hereditary so awe-inspiringly scary.
Even before we meet the subjects of Hereditary’s supernatural tragedy, they come loaded with fascinating baggage. The Grahams, Annie in particular, struggle to make sense of the mysterious events that follow the death of the family matriarch – a reclusive, senile, abusive old woman who had deranged, unknown designs for Annie, her brother, and her children. At first, strange things start to happen around Annie’s young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), an odd, disaffected child with a nut allergy and a penchant for doodling: odd shimmers appear around her, and her own behavior starts to change in radical (and sometimes violent) ways.
To say more about the twists and turns Hereditary takes you on would betray the ominous unpredictability of Aster’s masterful work – so much of the film depends on you being trapped in this situation along with the Grahams, Aster planting necessary clues to unravel the mystery of the family’s plight while keeping their sequence (and the severity of things) an enticing surprise. It’s a brilliant-looking film, atmospheric and shocking in all the right ways, cultivating a mood of unrelenting suspense with every mysterious figure in the background or chilling shot of someone undergoing indescribable trauma.
Little of Aster’s impeccable tone-setting (aided by Colin Stetson’s giddily discordant score and Pawel Pogorzelski’s pitch-perfect cinematography) would work nearly as well without his stellar cast. Collette deserves serious awards consideration for her rapidly deteriorating mother figure, a woman traumatized not only by her mother’s machinations, but her own increasing feelings of helplessness about protecting her family. Even her own model-making becomes loaded with meaning, a constant reminder of the ways our trauma fill the space in our minds and hearts until we just can’t take it anymore. In Collette’s wide-eyed, manic performance, you can find shades of Ellen Burstyn’s terrified mama bear in The Exorcist, not to mention a heaping helping of Jack Nicholson’s artist on the edge in The Shining. She’s at once a fierce protector of her babies, and also a slave to her family’s lineage and expectations, and every subtle tic and wild histrionic sells Annie’s growing desperation and madness.
It’s Collette’s show through and through, but special credit should be given to Wolff’s shaded, haunting portrayal of Peter. Much of the film’s marketing has centered on Collette and Shapiro’s characters – making Hereditary look much more like an Omen situation than anything – but Wolff’s steady decline into madness and trauma has just as much an effect on the film as they do. Shapiro herself is a capably creepy presence, with her haunted eyes and omnipresent clucking of her tongue (the vehicle for many effective scares, thanks to the film’s superlative sound design), while Ann Dowd brings her singular mix of matronly warmth and cackling theatricality to a minor supporting role it’s best not to elaborate on. Even Gabriel Byrne gets more than one chance to shine as Annie’s long-suffering husband, the lone remaining skeptic in a house that goes increasingly bump in the night.
Through its exercises in tightly-calibrated horror mechanics, Hereditary becomes more than your average haunted-house movie (though it does that stuff very well) – it’s a tale of how grief can change us in myriad, terrifying ways, and the looming specter of responsibility that family and, well, heredity can become. Some of us manage to escape and overcome that history; for others, it digs deep into our skin and refuses to let go. Annie haunted by more than just supernatural forces, but by unending anguish – not knowing what role she plays in the family, her inability to engage with her loved ones, the unexpected holes that are ripped open when one of them is gone for good. It’s these shades, not just the spooky scares, that lend Hereditary a grander, more existential sense of horror.
It’s funny that A24 released this movie a scant two years after The Witch, another shocking film from a first-time director about a family succumbing to the supernatural forces that have targeted them. Like that stellar feature, Hereditary leaves you hanging onto every whispered secret, shadowy background figure, and ominous portent of doom. It’s one of the scariest movies to come along in a long time, and I can’t wait for A24 to complete the trilogy with a family in the future dealing with ghosts or witches. Make it happen, folks.
Hereditary is summoned from its unearthly realm to possess theaters Friday, May 8.