Hereditary is a dreadful, ghastly tale spun out of the threads of Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, with some eerie strands of The Babadook and The Witch woven in.
A particular, persistent dread infuses Hereditary, and it starts immediately, as you’re not quite sure what you’re seeing. That feeling stays with you throughout the entirety of the film, dogging you until the end. That dread pervades everything and everyone; you’re never sure who’s crazy, a killer, a conjurer, a normal person. For a film with very few jump scares, you’ll never stop peering into the dark corners of every darkened room in this dark movie to see what might jump out at you, and it’ll never turn out the way that you expect.
In short, you’ll leave the theater entirely unsettled, unsure of what you saw, and questioning your sanity just a little bit.
I went into Hereditary knowing nothing at all about it, other than Toni Collette is the lead. I don’t know what I expected; maybe a woman digging into her past and finding secrets she didn’t expect, slowly going crazy as she uncovers something sinister about her origins. To an extent, that’s present here, but I have to applaud the filmmakers for doing very little according to traditional horror tropes–and that’s both good and bad.
What seems to be a bit of a haunting or a possessed child film turns into something much more akin to The Witch or Rosemary’s Baby, with an atmosphere drenched in raw emotion covering every moment. There’s a sense of stark reality to the film–the Graham family suffers multiple tragedies in quick succession and begins to unravel. After the death of her grandmother before the film opens, 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) isolates herself, acting out a bit, drawing eerie things and making strange figurines. Then another tragedy strikes, and its wake shocks the family, nearly breaking it apart. Annie (Toni Collette) is cajoled into a seance by a creepy acquaintance (Ann Dowd), which of course leads to some dark deeds and happenings about the house. Everyone is affected, but everything seems to center around Annie and Peter (Alex Wolffe). Annie sees horrific, graphic things, while Peter suffers seeing his mother blaming him for past deeds, eventually becoming the focus of the activity.
Everything comes to a head in the last five minutes, and what was a thoroughly unpredictable film for the first 120 minutes turns, unfortunately, all too predictable if you’re a seasoned horror fan (if not, as I’ve found from speaking to some horror newbies, you’ll do just fine). I’ve got some qualms with the story machinations that bring us to the end, but they don’t taint the exquisitely crafted film from first time director Ari Aster.
The cinematography works wonders for the mood of the film. Of course, this is a horror film; there are a lot of dark recesses of the house, but the use of depth of field creates a sense of unease and dissociation from reality. You see, Annie is an artist who specializes in miniatures, and her workshop is filled with projects–one of which is their house, which seems to update to follow the plot of the story. The camerawork and precision of mise en scène just fortify the creepiness and the dissociation from reality that the characters are experiencing.
Not nearly enough can be said about the acting, all around. However, Toni Collette and Alex Wolff rise to the top and then some. Collette contorts her face and body and voice in unimaginable ways (even for those of us who witnessed her brilliance in The United States of Tara). Similarly, Wolff portrays a young man dealing with a deep grief and guilt while his mother goes slowly (not quietly) insane. Both actors should be on our radars come Oscar season, giving nuanced, pitch-perfect performances throughout–particularly Wolff. In other actors’ hands, this could have fallen apart.
I foresee Hereditary sticking with me for quite awhile, much like mother! or The Phantom Thread. It holds maybe one of the most singularly disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen in a film–a scene which literally made me set my popcorn down, close my dropped jaw, and sink down in my seat because the film took me in a direction I never thought it would go.
It’s profoundly, emotionally affecting, and without the supernatural aspects could be a straightforward, Oscar-nominated film that examines what grief does to a family. However, for its boldness in (mostly) defying our expectations and holding the audience in its palm, I applaud Hereditary.
And then I won’t see it again.
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.