‘Hereditary’ is Two Solid Hours of Sustained, Deeply Unsettling Strangeness

This horror film is compelling in its cruelty

by Philbert Dy

Hereditary begins with a funeral. Annie (Toni Collette) is burying her mother, with whom she had a strained relationship. The specter of this death hangs over her family complicating her relationships with her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). While already deep in emotional turmoil, the family suffers a freak tragedy that throws things into even deeper chaos. And in this chaos, while grasping at straws to find some way to cope with their sadness, Annie and her family will stumble into the realm of the supernatural, uncovering some long buried dark truths along the way.

One can only hint at the horrors enclosed within this movie. It is worth saying, though, that even if this movie didn’t get legitimately spooky, it would be able to stand alone as a thoughtful meditation on the way that trauma can be inherited, on how a parent can pass on his or her own personal pain down generations. Even before things get really crazy in this film, it’s already plenty harrowing, often trapping the audience in small spaces with characters harboring personal horror. But then things do get crazy: the movie manifests this trauma as some of the most unsettling visuals ever committed to screen.

This is a really cruel movie. It is a strange thing to describe a piece of cinema as cruel, but it feels appropriate in this case. It doesn’t really offer the moments of peaceful respite that other horror movies provide. It starts out off-kilter: the very first sequence of the movie is a remarkable bit of filmmaking that establishes a very unsettling tone. And from there, the movie just doesn’t let up. And rather than allow the audience the release of a shriek, it makes them sit in its disturbing strangeness. It crawls along patiently, largely functioning on the general feeling that something just isn’t right. It builds up to a compounding effect, the horror present evenĀ  in the most innocuous of sequences.

And then things get nuts, the horror becoming more literal, the threats becoming physical. And in this, the movie continues to be cruel. It isn’t content with startling the audience: it wants to show them things that they won’t easily forget. The film cobbles together some genuinely distressing images. There are points where it feels like the movie crosses over from plain scary to downright evil, its imagery composed to convey the presence of something truly demonic, rather than just a representation of the things that we are afraid of.

It is a little hard to believe that this is the feature film debut of writer and director Ari Aster. His direction is a large part of what makes this film work, the technical skill on show instrumental to the overall effect. But one must also give a lot of credit to Toni Collette, who is at the very core of this movie’s growing sense of dread. The horror is often conveyed in her expressions, the movie often able to communicate the presence of something awful through a closeup of Collette’s face. Alex Wolff is also a standout, the young actor’s performance a manifestation of teenage turmoil that feels uncomfortably real.

Hereditary might end up confounding those looking for a more conventional horror movie experience. It isn’t really a jump scare machine like The Conjuring movies and its ilk. It’s much crueler than that, much more methodical in the deployment of its horrific content. It ratchets up the terror and tension to an unreasonable degree, and makes the audience sit in it, largely denying them the catharsis of a screamworthy moment. It is often an uncomfortable movie, its sequences designed to disturb rather than entertain. It is one of those films that might make people question why they see horror movies altogether. And while that kind of feels like an odd reason to recommend a movie, it is nonetheless the best endorsement we can offer.