From the moment ‘Hereditary’ opens, it tells you it is a horror film. It opens to intricately designed miniatures of a house that appear to show us the house that these dioramas are kept in while eerie music plays. Even in broad daylight, the effect is already chilling. It begins right at the funeral of Annie’s mother. Annie is the artist behind the miniatures and she has an upcoming show. Somewhere in rural America, she lives with her husband, Steve, and her two kids, Peter and Charlie.
As the story unfolds, we discover that Annie’s relationship with her mother was very strained, and that Charlie was her grandmother’s favorite. As Annie and Charlie navigate the emotions following the loss of a loved one, there are clues being uncovered about a secret life that Annie’s mother may have had.
And these secrets are dark and deadly indeed.
Writer and director Ari Aster manages to create a sense of claustrophobia in a setting that is filled with large open spaces. Annie’s house is huge, whose backyard leads out into a forest. There’s so much space in this film but the story is so focused on Annie and her family that it feels small and tight.
Even outside of their household when the story follows Peter and Charlie, from school to a house party, it isn’t the typical crowded scenes with teenagers that we are accustomed to in films. In the classrooms, there’s so much space between each child and in the teenagers house party, it’s not cramped. There’s so much space to move but there’s this feeling of tightness. It’s a wonderful use of camerawork, of very tight shots and setting out the geography that creates this feeling of constriction. It’s eerie and relentless and helps create the dread.
Aster cuts through this family and their dysfunctions painting a story of a family that looks fine and ordinary at the surface, as pretty as Annie’s artwork, but there are cracks here that are brought out into the open after Annie’s mother’s funeral. But despite the building up of tension, ‘Hereditary’ is a slow burn. Aster builds up the setting, the family, and their story creating drama that you feel is going to explode once whatever is set to happen hits. And when it does, it’s a rollercoaster of emotions.
‘Hereditary’ is wonderful because the drama of this family is interwoven so intricately with its horror. One feeds off the other and amplifies it. The drama is exacerbated by the horror that creeps in and, at the same time, the horror triggers more dramatic tension. This is a family that is falling apart from one emotional punch to the next, and it’s riveting.
Toni Collette is magnificent as Annie, a woman who is at the edge and desperately trying to hold everything together. This is work that brings to mind her Oscar nominated performance in ‘Sixth Sense’ but it is an entirely different tour de force that should get her nominated again. It is a quiet and nuanced performance until the film hits its fever pitch and she dials it up to full without breaking a sweat.
The other breakout star here is Alex Wolff, who plays Peter, who must deal with the full emotional weight of this family’s breakdowns and dysfunctions.
Critics have praised ‘Hereditary’ as being one of the best horror films to come out since ‘The Conjuring’ and I can see why, even though the film is a totally different kind of movie altogether. It is relentlessly creepy, never relying on jump scares, and slowly builds its tension until it cannot contain it anymore.
It’s the kind of film that gets under your skin with its intricately created characters and relationships and striking visuals. Its use of music and silence is manipulative, but in a good way, and even in the brightest of days, the film is filled with dread.
This is not your typical horror film. ‘Hereditary’ gets under your skin and stays there, not letting go, even after you’ve left the cinema. It really is one of the best horror movies that have come out in a long while.