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‘Hereditary’ Broods in Unspeakable Terror

Families can be solid as a rock, or fragile and ready to implode at any moment. Sitting down for dinner could go smoothly, or it could blow up at an off-handed remark. Hereditary feeds off of that tension between kin, amplified in the wake of a death. From there, it feels like a new kind of terror that grabs hold and refuses to let go.

Toni Collette shines brightly as Annie Graham, a grieving daughter who is worried about the effect her mother’s passing will have on her own daughter. That is ultimately the crux of the film’s first half, which burns slowly as a family drama that incorporates a healthy dosage of the horrors one could face in the grieving process. Peter (Alex Wolff), Annie’s oldest child, is your regular high school kid who has a crush on a girl and just wants to get high with his friends, while Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is anything but ordinary. She loved her grandmother more than she does her mother, and acts weird in situations on a consistent basis, making Annie suspicious of how much influence her mother had on her young daughter.

All of these things pile up in a way that gives such an earned feeling of tension. Ari Aster both wrote and directed this film, and for a debut feature, it places him firmly next to directors like Robert Eggers (The Witch), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), and Jordan Peele (Get Out) as someone who will have all eyes on his next project. The level of attention in the screenplay is staggering, doling out scares and information in the same breath. Everything matters in Hereditary, even from the opening shot of an obituary for Annie’s mother. It doesn’t just tell you she’s dead — it sets a tone of dread and leaves questions immediately about the nature of the Graham family.

I grew up with siblings in pretty rural areas. We fought all the time, whether it was one person yelling at another while everyone else just sits and eats their dinner quickly until one storms off and eats their dinner cold later at night, or just coming home to questions about your day. Tension was always present. Maybe it was a combination of sibling rivalries and always wondering how to manipulate parents into buying that hot new toy that everyone else had, but there was never a moment where things couldn’t escalate. Hereditary fully captures a lot of the minutiae that I felt growing up, but obviously to a more horrific extreme. Peter wrestles with demons that his mother is scared to even talk to him about, Annie is even more scared of Charlie growing up, and their father, Steve (Gabriel Bryne), just goes on with his day at work and comes home to try and navigate the fraught relationships around him. It’s a minefield that seems ready to explode.

This is where Hereditary transcends a lot of horror films. It finds the terror in everyday life, much like Jennifer Kent did with The Babadook, but it also sets itself up to be more than just a horror film with a great metaphor. It’s something far more evil, and posits reflection on the way we interact within our own families. The little ticks they latch onto us can bring a new kind of dread — one that torments the soul until final breath. Aster elicits a tone of grief throughout the entirety of the film, even when the movie spirals into traditional horror tropes. They aren’t bad tropes either, but if the screenplay wasn’t as tightly constructed as it was, they’d feel hokier than intended. It’s clear that the family drama is the more central plot in Hereditary, but the incorporation of more genre elements makes those family beats more sinister and corruptible.

That change from a tense family drama to a full-on horror film is beautifully connected through Colin Stetson’s score, where he does what he’s been doing with his solo avant-garde work, but on a much more diabolical level. His compositions maintain from the beginning to the end of the movie, with a few key moments of silence that can feel just as palpably tense as the music does. Stetson helps provide an atmosphere much in the way that Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography adds a voyeuristic layer to the Hereditary’s themes, as constructs much of his shots in the same way that Annie sees her life — through vignettes and moments, often tracking characters as opposed to cutting away from them.

Hereditary is very comparable to Jordan Peele’s Get Out from last year in that each moment and every piece of production design feels detrimental to understanding the film. It already seems like a movie primed for rewatching, if you can stomach the unspeakable terror it unleashes. There’s a moment (and you’ll know it when it happens) that lets you know the film is not messing around. If you haven’t walked out of the theater at that point, you can likely handle everything else thrown at you. It will often create a feeling where hiding seems like the only possible way to get through the experience, and what makes Hereditary an incredible achievement is that hiding from the truth can be much harder than just watching it. Sometimes we have to face the hard truths, no matter how evil and heartbreaking they really are.

Written By

Chris is a graduate of Communications from Simon Fraser University and resides in Victoria, British Columbia. Given a pint, he will talk for days about action films, video games, and the works of John Carpenter.

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