Once in a blue moon, a horror film comes along that you cannot shake — that sinks its claws deeper into your flesh if you try.
Hereditary is one of them, leaving you with images that refuse to stay buried, and a general sense of hysteria usually reserved for family gatherings.
Watching Hereditary feels like a possession, or the existential realization that you’re becoming your mother. It inhabits you, hijacking your senses from the very first shot and maintaining that hold in every minute that follows. Most horror gives viewers the comfort of voyeuristic distance, but not this one. An unrelenting descent into trauma, it insists that you become part of the family as the tragic terror unfolds.
The debut feature of director Ari Aster adds to the recent uptick of horror movies that use the genre as a vehicle to address the all-too-real nightmares of human existence, like The Babadook and Get Out. There is enough craftsmanship for people who are not usually fans of horror to sink their teeth into, recalling techniques reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or The Tenant.
But be warned: Nothing about Hereditary is for the faint of heart.
Opening with the passing of Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) elderly mother, Hereditary follows as the death ripples through each member of the house with consequences both small and catastrophic. It’s entrenched in domestic horror, so anyone who’s ever experienced familial grief or strained relationships will be able to identify with the stench of decay at its rotting core.
The pacing immerses you in the feelings of grief: that numbed dread, punctured every now and again by a jarring shock of debilitating panic. While the camera is controlled and steady, it often transitions into first-person viewpoints or extreme close-ups of characters in the deepest throes of an emotional breaking point.
Death distorts your family life and home into an unrecognizable hellscape
This is a movie obsessed with perspectives, sometimes framing scenes like they’re rooms in a dollhouse. Establishing wide shots of the family home employ a vignetting effect, giving it the appearance of being enclosed in a snow globe. In one wordless shot of the family at a funeral (seen in the trailer), the camera pans down below the grass and into the dirt, giving the impression that these events are happening inside a display case. Meanwhile, the interior scenes are all compartmentalized into distinct tableaus, the distressing action appearing almost frozen in time.
Outside of Collette’s grippingly frenzied performance, the biggest star of the movie is the sound design. Great use of sound is a linchpin of effective horror, and Hereditary takes this to the extreme, leading several people in my theater to scream at the most seemingly innocent noises.
Echoing the protagonist’s miniature models, which meticulously recreate the minute details of real-world events, the uncanniness of Hereditary lies in its small flourishes. But these disconcerting details accumulate into a demented final act that will surely cause a bevy of conflicting reactions from audiences.
Though its conclusion makes good on the promise as a “horror” movie, it also somewhat detracts from Hereditary‘s resonance as a story of universally familiar trauma.
What makes Hereditary so strong is that it understands the terror of death does not lie in gore, blood, or monsters. The horror of death lies in the commonplace. It is a beast we all meet and — in an instant — it can distort your family life and home into an unrecognizable hellscape.