There's always one film that comes out of festival season each year boasting the hyperbolic signature of "scariest film of the year." Films like It Follows and The Babadook have all generated impressive buzz that, by the time the film reaches theaters, can taint the expectations of audiences and leave them with feelings of disappointment.
Hereditary, which opens areawide on Friday, is not that movie.
Writer-director Ari Aster's feature debut is a tour de force in horror filmmaking. After Annie Graham (Toni Collette in her best work yet) loses her mother Ellen, strange occurrences begin happening to the Graham family.
Before her secretive and borderline abusive mother passed away after a long battle with dementia, Ellen took a particular interest in Annie's eccentric daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a troubled child who begins to see things. Annie's life continues to spiral into a terrifying display of chaos as Charlie begins to reveal the horrific truth about the family's ancestry.
To call Hereditary "scary" is a disservice to the power of what is one of the most unsettling films released in recent memory. Sure, there are moments of effective jump scares and anxiety-inducing imagery, but the power of Hereditary is in its unpredictable buildup that leads us down increasingly intense pathways from which we cannot escape.
Like many of our favorite horror movies, Hereditary isn't a simple haunted-house film. Rather, it's one that nags at our deepest anxieties through psychological warfare.
Much of the effectiveness of a horror movie is not knowing what's to come, so I won't reveal any more plot points to ensure that audiences are able to go in as blindly as possible. A few moments are genuinely shocking, but it's witnessing the decline of humanity into something far more sinister that will haunt you long after you've left the theater.
Nothing about this family is normal. But then again, are any of our families normal?
The opening moments of Hereditary rip open a wound of sorrow and repugnance, only to build into pandemonium. There's a sense of familiarity created by focusing on the familial traits that we all inherit and cannot control, and a heartbreaking acceptance of how difficult it is when grief overtakes a person in the wake of a major loss.
Hereditary is a film that will slither under your skin and stay there. This hyper-stylized exploration of grief personifies the horrors of loss and the confusion we have about life after death.
Aster has crafted an incredibly effective film, borrowing from the auteurs that came before. Kubrick's wide-angle shots to enhance the sensation of loneliness are proudly on display, as is the frenetic and jarring sense of paranoia expertly established by DePalma. And yet, Hereditary aligns itself with its contemporaries with moments of stillness and a false sense of security until an erratic presence completely destroys any semblance of calmness.
Collette (Krampus, The Sixth Sense, The Dead Girl) is absolutely remarkable. The award-winning actress is giving the performance of a lifetime and has surely solidified her spot in the canon of tormented horror movie mothers alongside Shelley Duvall in The Shining and Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby. Collette's pain is palatable, and each chord of turmoil plays within all of us, over and over and over again.
Comparisons to The Babadook are sure to be plentiful, but Hereditary is not quite as paint-by-numbers metaphor horror as Jennifer Kent's fantastic debut. Collette's delivery is just as complex and psychologically scarring as Essie Davis, but Collette's world is far more insidious than that of the dook-dook-dook.
The emotional driving force of Hereditary is downright unbearable at times, and situations on screen are legitimately traumatizing. A film that may feel slow in the beginning only benefits from its pacing as dread continues to ooze from the surface and completely encompasses everything in its path. Hereditary feels like we're trapped in a tragic walking nightmare from which we will never awake.
The film more than lives up to the trailer, and the positive word of mouth you've heard is all true.
Hereditary is truly terrifying.