Published Jun 04, 2018You know those nightmares that are so traumatizing and vivid they fuck up your whole day? That's Hereditary. This feature directorial debut from Ari Aster made a big splash at Sundance, and it's easy to see why: Hereditary avoids cheap shock-and-awe scare tactics almost entirely, instead building up a bone-chilling tension that's relatable and frighteningly realistic.
The story begins with Annie (Toni Collette), an artist specializing in miniature models, who is dealing with conflicted feelings of grief following the death of her estranged mother. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is quietly supportive, their son Peter (Alex Wolff) is a moody stoner and their daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) does creepy shit like cutting the head off a dead bird. Typical family stuff.
The first half highlights the pain that stems from complicated familial relationships, with much of the tension coming from score composer (and noted Canadian saxophonist) Colin Stetson's dissonant drones, and the eerie dioramas that artist Annie builds in her workshop. Her dollhouse-like models are peppered around the family's rustic home, and these metaphor-filled dioramas grow increasingly sinister as the tragic events build up and we learn more about the family's dark past.
Yes, there are horrors, but they're often played for emotional impact rather than gratuitous scares, and the film works so well as a haunting drama that it's possible to temporarily forget that this is even a horror movie. The most upsetting moment of the entire movie isn't a scary scene — it's one where a character is overcome with heartbreaking, entirely believable grief.
The patient pacing and Collette's tragic performance mean that, by the time the plot takes a supernatural turn, it's all the more terrifying. What's scariest about Hereditary is the way it blurs the line between psychological trauma and demonic possession — family members stop trusting one another as reality becomes increasingly difficult to pin down. Aster's warping of reality is so effective that a simple trick like upside-down camera work or a quick cut from nighttime to daytime becomes deeply unsettling.
This isn't the kind of popcorn horror flick that's full of jump-scares and spooky good times. Rather, this is a film that friends will dare one another to watch and then regret it instantly, and it takes a certain masochistic streak to enjoy. But if you don't mind frightening yourself to the core, Hereditary is a harrowing masterpiece.