The Exceptional Horror of “Hereditary”

Ari Aster’s Hereditary opens simply: the white letters of Ellen Graham’s obituary blazing on a inky background. The matriarch is survived by her daughter Annie, an artist who creates miniature dioramas of her everyday life. We see one of her miniatures now: a cut-out model of her home in the forest. As we zoom in, we focus on a bedroom belonging to her teenage son Peter. Slowly, the miniature room fills the screen until the facsimile becomes reality and Peter’s father walks in to wake him for his grandmother’s funeral. From this point forward the line between reality and fantasy, between the actual and the imagined, will remain blurred.

Call it a ghost story, a possession story, an occult story, “supernatural horror”, or whatever else you want; Hereditary is one of the most potent expressions of sickening terror of recent memory. In the vein of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Kubrick’s The Shining or most recently Robert Egger’s The VVitch, Aster’s film is a slow-burn, atmospheric horror film that builds its case piece-wise. Like turning up a dimmer switch or boiling a frog, the spectator can’t quite put their finger on precisely when the nagging feeling of dread takes over, but by the climax we’re all certain that it has.

As an exceptional piece of horror, Hereditary owes its success to a happy confluence of specific elements. There are essentially only five characters, and each one of the performances is impeccable. The plotting and pacing of the story is tortuous in all the right ways, at once measured and frenetic, ekeing its way towards the grisly culmination. Both of these elements are expertly aided by a dogged attention to visual detail and a grim cinematography, grounding the film in a stark realism while making room for the supernatural encroachment. Finally, Hereditary makes deft use of metaphor and allegory to suggest deeper themes and more complex ideas than your standard ghost story.

In Hereditary, all of the characters are on a knife’s edge, and the performances capture this anxiousness perfectly. Though every actor is fantastic, Toni Colette’s portrayal of Annie is the magnificent stuff of nightmares. She struggles to find peace with the memory of her mother. At times she is saddened by their on-again, off-again estranged relationship, and other times she is furious with her mother’s secretive and manipulative behavior. Her mother’s death has her caught in an emotional maelstrom, halfway between misery and relief, and Colette allows this anguish to drive her performance.

Milly Shapiro plays her daughter Charlie, a sure first-ballot entry in the “creepiest kid” Hall of Fame. There’s a “1000-yard stare” quality to her affect, a dissociation with her mood that is fundamentally disconcerting, without resorting to gimmick or psychological diagnosis. She’s just kind of a weird kid. And, by the time we’ve learned why, it’s much too late.

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Annie’s son Peter is ably portrayed by Alex Wolff. He’s your standard care-free teenager, more concerned with ogling and impressing his current girl next door than the burgeoning tumult in his household. And yet, after a crucial plot turn, his character becomes someone who struggles to maintain normalcy, someone who confronted and challenged – and it is not clear that he is capable of answering that challenge and emerging unscathed. Wolff does all of this masterfully, and he is perhaps the most terrified of all of the characters in Hereditary. In this way, one could conclude that Alex serves as the audience proxy. Should that be true, then God help us all.

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From there, we have two emotional rocks: Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and a friend she meets at a “Death in the Family” support group named Joan (Ann Dowd). Steve is the voice of reason and a source of strength from the very first spoken line of the film: he shows up to give Peter his suit for the wake and then goes to find Charlie sleeping in her tree house (apparently a habit of hers). He supports Annie’s art, encouraging her with wit and care, and always seems to be the smartest and most-composed person in any room. Byrne infuses the character with an impressive stoicism, and acts as an essential touchstone given the insanity that will follow. Joan performs similarly, but in a more secretive fashion. And, as she descends into less conventional means of therapy the plot of the film really takes off. All in all, Hereditary is one of the most ably-performed horror films of recent memory.

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Another essential element of the atmospheric horror film is the pacing and, by extension, the specific plot elements. Here, Hereditary succeeds in spades. The plot is tight, and even upon an initial viewing it feels like everything that happens in the film has a purpose and leads to something else. Early tangential statements and actions reverberate throughout the film, reappearing in new contexts and revealing new truths. Revealing the particular plot beats that make Hereditary a special film will spoil a lot of the fun and really don’t add too much to the discussion. But, it is helpful to say that the pace at which the story unfolds is positively masterful. There’s a slow buildup of tension, punctuated by significant leaps forward in the thrust of the story. The result is a ratcheting fear, so by the time the story reaches its climax there’s nothing more than utter terror and bewilderment. It’s astounding, wonderful, and horrifying.

Aster supports his capable performers and the pacing of his story with a keen eye for darkness and detail-oriented visuals. For the most part, the cinematography in Hereditary is grim, flat, and dark. Even moments in full daylight have a gray tinge to them. And, when the darkness descends upon the house, there’s plenty to play with in the shadows. Specific items and sounds pique the viewer’s interest, and are usually revealed to be mundane (but, not always). A heat lamp lends the tree house an eerie red glow. It’s masterfully put together. Even the camera is a kind of conspirator. It mostly holds close to the actors, imploring the audience to worry about what might be outside the frame. Camera movements are sharp and usually quick, disorienting the viewer and robbing us of key information in many instances.  Aster occasionally employs some extreme camera angels for extra disorientation and shock value.  It certainly work; Hereditary looks positively creepy.

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Finally, though possession and the occult are effective horror tropes, Hereditary takes these fundamental ideas and transforms them into deep thematic discussions. As the title of the film may suggest, Hereditary addresses many ideas focused around family, succession, and the passing down of fault or flaw from one generation to the next. Though the film begins with Ellen Graham’s obit, the matriarch is a constant presence. A pervasive guilt hangs over Annie – first for cutting her mother out of her life, then for letting her back into it to perform her manipulations, then for feeling a sense of relief that she is finally dead. This is just scratching the surface of the thematic weight of family, love, frustration, and fear that is embedded in practically every scene in Hereditary.

Further, Annie’s diorama’s can be seen as an escape from this unending self-analysis, second guessing, and guilt. As she states in the second act of the film, these scenes are “neutral views”, though by that point there is some doubt as to whether Annie can be trusted as a narrator. Regardless, these representations act as a way for Annie to distance herself and exert some measure of control. Still, she feels a pressure to complete her installation on time for the art gallery; even our coping mechanisms can sometimes be sources of stress and frustration.

Hereditary is on the fast track to becoming one of the masterpieces of the supernatural horror genre. Flawless performances, measured and confident pacing, and a keen artistic eye all contribute to a slow-burn psychological sense of dread that belongs in the same discussion as the storied exemplars of the past.

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