At the foot of the stairway in the Graham residence, there sits a column of model houses, made by Annie (Toni Collette), wife of Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and mother of Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The houses are held and nearly smashed together by soil, giving the sculpture a monstrous, Gothic presence. It’s placement in a film about a family that wrestles with its own legacy and psychological trauma is no mistake, to say the least.
Coincidentally, “Hereditary” itself also rests on the foundations and legacies of the horror classics that come to mind while watching it. “Rosemary’s Baby” will be a common citation in post-viewing discussions, but the film also arrives hot on the heels of two other creepy familial psychodramas distributed by A24. After this, “It Comes At Night,” and “The Witch,” I’d say the studio has their first unofficial trilogy on their hands.
Unlike its recent predecessors, however, “Hereditary” leaves a number of thematic doors open for interpretation. It melds the psychological and the supernatural together to unsettling effect, but it also works as either-or just as well. To that end, the film will end up scaring people in different ways, but it will surely live inside everyone during the nights that follow their experience with it. If you’re like me, you’ll probably walk out of the theater with knots in your stomach.
“Hereditary” begins (as all great horror does) with a death. Annie’s troubled mother Ellen has passed away, and the film opens with her funeral. During the eulogy, Annie acknowledges the presence of several “strange new faces” in attendance. One of these faces eerily grins at Charlie as she passes her grandma’s casket. Ari Aster - directing his first feature - plants little seeds of discomfort like this throughout the first hour. It’s fascinating to watch as he wrings anxiety out of viewers in such small ways. Even something so inconsequential as someone chopping up meat with a kitchen knife gets a close-up. It seems as though Aster understands that the supernatural scares he builds up to work best after preying on psychological fears first.
This is a film made up of set-ups and payoffs, with just the right amount of ambiguity for audiences to keep an eye out for red herrings, as well as to retain any sense of tranquility before all hell breaks loose. Some of these reveal more set-ups and payoffs that feed its incessant dread and eventual third-act shockers. The crux is, of course, the effect of Ellen’s death on her family, particularly Annie - played to tragic and neurotic perfection by Collette (an Oscar nod should already be announced at this point). Aster conjures an air of mystery surrounding Ellen’s past, but the focus remains on what the past means for the Grahams’ future. And what an unpredictable future it is!
Part of the fun of “Hereditary” is the myriad of realizations you have after the film has ended, which is enough to warrant return viewings in order to scope out what you missed. This is because the film consistently trains our eye to examine the frame from top to bottom to pick out anything unusual, as Aster’s wide-angle lens lingers on rooms and open spaces long enough for one to wonder if someone, or something, will show up out of nowhere. Even then does Aster reveal things that appear so utterly simple that the creepy details he sprinkles in become all the creepier once you’ve realized you missed them upon second viewing. (There’s an outdoor shot near the end that is the stuff of nightmares.)
As all good horror filmmakers do, Aster does not show his hand too early, resulting in a steady crescendo of terror that is almost unbearable at times, especially if you can’t handle the sight of shadowy figures standing ominously in doorways and corners. Recent horror films have used long sullen silences to build up the occasional jump scare, but “Hereditary” thrives on them so much that anything so loud as a pin-drop, or one of Charlie’s instantly iconic tongue clucks, is more than enough to spell chills. If you’re expecting a subtle version of thrill rides like “The Conjuring,” you may want to buckle up for something far more deliberate in its attempt to penetrate your senses. And just when you think you’ve gotten used to the silence, “Hereditary” rewards your patience with a climax that nearly bludgeons your nerves into oblivion.