The new horror film, Hereditary, has been met with the sort of review accolades usually reserved for arthouse darlings. It has also inspired abject terror in now-traumatised viewers. Even for a semi-hardened critic, its effect is literally petrifying, keeping unpredictable developments coming until you can barely stand it; I felt like I held my breath for at least an hour of the running time. It’s not primarily gory; for the most part, it’s an exceptionally well-acted psychological drama. But few dramas hit this hard, because few films delve so deep into the fears that haunt us even at home, even in the heart of our family, even surrounded by the people we love the most.
I’m not going to get into spoilers, but the set-up will be reasonably familiar from any number of previous low-budget horrors – most recently, this spring’s A Quiet Place. In a beautiful, isolated house in the woods (uh oh) lives a nice family (yikes) with a dark past (run!). Mum Annie (Toni Collette) is an artist who makes insanely detailed miniature dioramas; dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is a doctor and a kindly, steady presence. They have two kids, Peter (Alex Wolff) and young Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and, as the film starts, they’re burying Annie’s dementia-afflicted mother, who has recently died. But young Charlie is acting oddly, making a strange clucking sound with her tongue (a noise that will haunt your nightmares). Then there’s Annie’s family history and her mum’s difficult, secretive nature, and it all sets the stage for disturbing revelations.
What follows is a very meaty film that digs deep into the fear that shadows any love. After all, if you love something, or someone, you must face the prospect that you might one day lose that person or that thing. You face the prospect of proving unworthy of their love and trust in you. And you have to face the dark parts of yourself that sometimes want to turn on them, despite your devotion. Mix those fears with the grief that comes with losing a loved one and you’re into seriously complex and anxiety-inducing territory
The first two-thirds of this film are a really close and astonishingly uncomfortable examination of the very, very thin line that lies between victim and monster. They primarily focus on Collette’s Annie, with the actor giving an extraordinary performance. She worries that she is not grieving hard enough for her mother, worried that she’ll have a similarly fraught relationship with her kids and that she’s passing the same faults down a generation. Shapiro, who has the face of an old-fashioned china doll, backs her up as her weird, sometimes creepy daughter, while Wolff’s Peter gets steadily more sweaty and strange looking as the film progresses. Yet some of the most shocking moments here are acts of verbal violence – someone lashing out at a loved one in unspeakable fury. This is a film about overwhelming guilt and the mental breaking point that exists, somewhere, for everyone.
There’s a good argument that all the scariest films work because they hit us where we live – often literally, and often based on particularly female fears
None of these ideas are entirely new to horror, of course, and there’s a good argument that all of the scariest films work because they hit us where we live – often literally, and often based on particularly female fears. The Exorcist: what if a demonic force took your child hostage? The Shining: what if your husband turned on you and your child? It Follows: what if sex killed you? The Babadook: what if the monster that is threatening you and your child //is// you? Rosemary’s Baby: what if your husband //and// unborn child are the monsters? The Omen: is your child the Antichrist? Even Halloween or A Nightmare On Elm Street originally worked because a place of safety became the hunting ground for monsters. Women make up the majority of horror audiences because we are the ones tasked with keeping our families together and happy, and so we’re all too familiar with the reality of these fears.
There are shades of some of those older movies here, in what is (amazingly) writer/director Ari Aster’s feature debut. But Hereditary wears its influences lightly and emerges as its own beast. You want to go into this knowing as little as possible, because it keeps defying your expectations in ways that are baldly terrifying. Almost every time you think you know where it’s heading, it will swerve. But it takes its time, letting you into these people’s lives and then turning the screws tighter and tighter and tighter. It’s very nearly unbearable.
Some people are going to hate the film’s (semi) explanation in the last act, but it’s almost a relief to have some sort of payoff – however awful – instead of the steadily building dread that has gone before. See it with friends, for moral support and because you’re going to need to dissect and discuss this as soon as you get out of the theatre. Just brace yourself. This one is going to linger in the darker corners of your brain, right next to your nightmares. It’s another good year for horror.