Hereditary: It Runs in the Family

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Jordan Bosch

It’s rare for a horror movie to maintain such a consistent creepiness without necessarily subverting expectations the way Hereditary does. The debut feature from Ari Aster recycles a number of genre conventions, but does so in a sheath of intricate technical prowess, clever devices and homages, and frightfully real performances.

After the death of the eccentric and estranged grandmother of the Graham family, Annie (Toni Collette) tries to reconcile her relationship with her late mother while still being haunted by her presence. While her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), tries to move on, their children: teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and introverted daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) experience a number of disturbing visions and eerie occurrences. Soon the whole family finds themselves being manipulated by the powerful remnants of their demented matriarch.

 Milly Shapiro

Milly Shapiro

The atmosphere of Hereditary is pretty unsettling from the start. A part of that is of course due to the tone, musical score, and cinematography; but it’s also largely because the family is quite creepy even before anything happens to them. They’re already dysfunctional and keep to their own spheres, with Annie a miniature models designer, Steve fairly distant in his own work, Charley keeping to herself and her disturbing artwork, and Peter a hormonal teenager interested mostly in recreational drugs and rebelliousness. Their interactions are characterized by a lot of pent-up tension, grief, guilt, and unexpressed feelings, and this is what drives a great deal of the suspense in this movie. Even their house is unnerving in its neatness and claustrophobic vacancy -the production design work here is really good. The actual scares are done very well too. Most of them are visually or psychologically oriented rather than merely gruesome imagery and shocks, though there are obviously a few of those. And in this, Aster demonstrates a real appreciation for the horror genre by paying tribute to various imageries and techniques from the likes of Rosemary’s Baby to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. There are even allusions to Ordinary People and one recurring shot-reverse shot motif that has to be a direct reference to The Shining. Though there are relatively few jump moments, the movie likes to build to the expectation of them anyways, catching the audience off-guard when nothing happens despite the musical and camera cues.

 Toni Collette

Toni Collette

What also keeps you on the edge of your seat are the really captivating performances. As usual, Byrne can’t maintain a convincing American accent, but he does a fine job with an underwritten character otherwise, and Shapiro is suitably unsettling in her off-kilter mannerisms. But the stand-outs are Toni Collette and Alex Wolff. Collette outstandingly conveys a grieving woman trying to make sense of her conflicting feelings and mental state, while also believable terror at what starts unravelling and a slow descent into hysteria. There’s an explosion of vitriol she has at one point that’s absolutely numbing and delivered with excellent passion and stamina. It’s a very dynamic performance and easily one of the best I’ve seen this year. And Wolff, who I’ve only seen before in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, is stupefying given how much his character has to go through, the trajectory the story takes him in, and the gamut of emotions he experiences as a result. He’s the break-out star of this movie for sure.

Implication and subtle scares add to the films’ foreboding mood as much as unexpected plot points, but the story itself does abide by a number of standard devices. As with a lot of modern haunting movies, possession and hallucinations play a part (though the latter is really well-utilized to blur the lines of reality a couple times). Even if the specifics may be up in the air, when various developments rear their heads its clear the general direction the movie’s now moving towards. However, the climax is still largely satisfying and freaky even if the ending itself is a little botched. Without giving anything away, Hereditary should have ended about five minutes before it did. The last moments are something of a waste of clarification that’s already pretty well inferred and a tad trite on top of that. Also, Annie’s model houses service a creative visual and metaphor that really has no ultimate purpose other than the filmmakers wanted to show off they could do that.

Hereditary is a pretty good directorial debut though, and one that will leave a lasting impression. It’s a movie where some of the biggest scares and most uncomfortable moments come from details, whether visual or verbal, that expand on the family relationships, actions, and vulnerabilities. It succeeds at both its own style and where it draws influence, and its performances, particularly from Collette and Wolff, elevate some of the more pedestrian material. It’s not as unique or clever as something like A Quiet Place, but it’s got more than enough to give you the creeps to sustain the summer.

Like Horror? Check out Jordan's review of Cargo

Here is Jordan's "Five Hidden Halloween Gems"

Gere is his review of  A Quiet Place