Review: ‘Hereditary’ Takes the Horror Genre to Unsettling Heights

A24’s fourth horror film in five years is worth all the hype.

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A24’s fourth horror film in five years is worth all the hype.

RATING: ★★★1/2 (out of four stars)

If there’s one thing that’s been the most consistent about A24 since they were founded in 2012, it’s their dedication to the arthouse horror subgenre. 2014 would be the year of Under The Skin, which paired harrowing imagery and an unnerving score to an abstract narrative that blended elements of atmospheric science fiction and cosmic horror to create a haunting but thought-provoking commentary about beauty, sexuality and what it ultimately means to be human. Two years later, A24 would release The Witch, a period horror piece that took the risk of grounding its dialogue in the dialect of colonial-era England to tell its haunting tale about a family banished from their homeland only to be haunted and driven to paranoia by supernatural forces. Then there was the extremely divisive It Comes At Night, which was sold as a post-apocalyptic horror film centered around a family trying to retain their existence after a disease wipes out the majority of humanity around them, but turned out to be an unsettling mindbender of a psychological drama.

Now this weekend, A24 is poised to release Hereditary, the directorial debut of Ari Aster, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to an unprecedented level of praise. While only time will tell if Hereditary is one of the scariest movies of all time, it certainly is terrifying in its own unique way, and takes the horror genre to new heights through its stylistic choices, deliberately slow pacing, and a knockout lead performance from Toni Collette.

Hereditary begins with an obituary over a black screen for Ellen Graham, which in true newspaper fashion makes note of her deceased parents and husband, as well as the surviving members of her family, most notably her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), who is having as difficult a time coping with the loss of her mother as she is with completing an elaborate showcase of miniature houses and buildings complete in time for an important art exhibit while raising her own immediate family, from her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and her young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), while her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) elects to keep to himself and focus on his work as a therapist.

Right from the get-go, it’s made clear that this family has a tumultuous relationship, from the sparse conversations they do have with each other before heading off to partake in their menial but quirky hobbies; Charlie draws sketches of creepy monsters and Peter socializes and smokes cannabis with his friends. But Ellen’s death is the catalyst for Annie to find herself and her family haunted by terrors that may be of mental, supernatural, or even ancestral origin, and sets out to discover their true source despite her mental vulnerability.

From that synopsis, Hereditary sounds like a straightforward horror film, but what earns it all the hype and critical praise is the assured direction from Ari Aster. In his debut feature film, Aster does the unprecedented and sets a new bar for the horror genre by fusing a variety of subgenres to create a film-watching experience that’s uniquely terrifying from beginning to end. A particular example of existential horror comes in the film’s opening shot, where the camera zooms in on one of the many miniature houses in Annie’s workshop until the bedroom takes up the entire frame, just in time for Peter to wake up and have a brief conversation with his father standing in the doorway. The tilt shift lens used for this opening adds to the existential perspective of Hereditary by making these characters look like dolls in this proverbial dollhouse, suggesting that the horrors they go through in the next two hours are inescapable and beyond their control.

Meanwhile, elements of psychological horror permeate throughout Hereditary through Annie’s mental anguish, conveyed by a powerhouse lead performance from Toni Collette. Forever a character actress, Collette makes the case for a Best Actress Oscar nomination with every breakdown at her grief support group, outburst at her family, and drive to discover the secrets of her family history. As the film progresses and Annie’s search takes her down a psychological rabbit hole, one is left wondering in a pivotal scene if Annie is having nightmarish visions, possessed by a spiritual force or crying out to her mother in helplessness from her situation, and Collette sells the ambiguity of Annie’s emotional state with an unflinching intensity.

Aster also succeeds at keeping Hereditary suspenseful for the entirety of its run time through a plethora of aesthetic choices which give the film a consistent, unsettling ambience from scene to scene; from wide shots that isolate the characters, to long takes and painfully unhurried camera movements that contribute to a deliberately slow pace that only builds the tension more and more as the audience comes to learn about the Graham family and the unhinged baggage they carry. Even the resentment everyone in this family has for each other, and the familial pressures Peter feels as a teenager are played for scares, only adding a layer of domestic horror on top of the film’s existential and atmospheric dread. It’s worth noting that Aster went the extra mile to make his first horror feature fresh and new by crafting it devoid of jump scares. When audiences finally see the force that’s really haunting the Grahams lurking behind them, their only choice is to watch in between fingers and pray our characters escape, or survive sight unseen.

But in a film with many twists and turns, Hereditary does take one for the conventional in its third act resolution. It’s especially deflating because it follows a conclusion full of disturbing imagery and haunting atmosphere that succeeds at making one’s skin crawl. Meanwhile, the film’s slow pace and just over two hour runtime can really test the patience of causal moviegoers. But for those up to the challenge, Hereditary is a fresh, hypnotic take on the horror genre that will leave audiences on the edge of their seats for its consistent, unrelenting atmosphere, demented turns in its story, and inventive merging of genres into an experience that’s terrifying in its uniqueness. It’s deserving of all the hype and positive criticism it’s gotten up to this point, as it’s the type of film that will leave its viewership wishing to stop feeling scared as much as these characters wish to stop living with each other.

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