Review: Ari Aster's Horror Film 'Hereditary' is Unsettling & Inescapable
by Adam Frazier
June 6, 2018
One in five Americans experiences some form of mental illness, with one in 25 suffering severe illness, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, or dissociative identity disorder (DID). For years, the horror genre has exploited these psychiatric disorders for shock value, perpetuating myths and stereotypes along the way. Movies like Psycho, Halloween, and Silence of the Lambs use mental illness as the motivation for the antagonist's violent behavior. More recently, films like The Taking of Deborah Logan and The Visit have used neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's as a conduit for evil deeds. With Hereditary, A24's new horror film, writer/director Ari Aster explores the darkest depths of mental illness and familial tragedy to create a profoundly disquieting moviegoing experience that stays with you long after the closing credits.
When her mother passes away, Annie Graham (Toni Collette of The Sixth Sense and Little Miss Sunshine) and her family process the death in different ways. Working as a stay-at-home artist, Annie attempts to seize control over her grief by creating intricate miniature dioramas depicting the family's trials and tribulations. Her even-tempered husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), works long hours at his psychotherapy practice while their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff of My Friend Dahmer) drifts aimlessly through high school, getting high with his stoner friends to numb his many emotional hang-ups. Unable to sleep, younger daughter Charlie (newcomer Milly Shapiro) spends most nights in the family tree house, fabricating bizarre totems made from animal parts and household trinkets.
After going through her mother's belongings, Annie begins to decipher cryptic and increasingly alarming secrets about her heritage. She attends a bereavement support group where we learn about her late mother's struggles with dissociative identity disorder and dementia. Annie reveals that her brother had schizophrenia and committed suicide to quiet the voices in his head. It seems that Annie's family is cursed – born into a situation over which they apparently have no control. She wonders if she's doomed to suffer the same fate as her mother, or if she's unknowingly passed it along to her children. Returning to the support group, Annie strikes up a friendship with Joan (Ann Dowd), a middle-aged woman grieving the loss of her recently deceased son and grandson. Joan persuades Annie to join her in a séance, and that's when shit gets spooky.
Hereditary switches gears from a searing family drama about tragedy à la Ordinary People and Manchester by the Sea into slow-burn supernatural horror, channeling the vibe of '60s and '70s classics like Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and Don't Look Now. Is Annie "going crazy" like her mother? Is she imagining things in her grief, or is there something more sinister to blame for her family's prolonged succession of misfortunes? Toni Collette's staggering, career-best turn will have you asking the same questions as her character slowly unravels into fits of rage, hysteria, and melancholia. Like Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist, or Nicole Kidman in The Others, Collette delivers a powerful and unpredictable performance that will make you believe, not only in Annie's insatiable sorrow but also the unknown evil that permeates the Graham family's home.
Aster conjures a perpetual panic attack that is both stylish and subdued with the help of cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski's gorgeous, ghastly cinematography, and avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson's ominous horn-driven score. Annie's miniatures, intricately crafted by Steve Newburn (of Inception, The Dark Knight Rises), add an entirely new dimension to the visual storytelling. The Grahams are like figurines stuck in one of Annie's miniature tableaus, manipulated by outside forces. The quality of the filmmaking on display here is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining – deeply affecting in a way that can't be expressed so much as experienced. As a horror movie, it's every bit as effective as recent art-house darlings like It Follows, The Babadook, and The Witch, but harder to shake. This isn't a movie that you're entertained by – it's one that attempts to traumatize you with its harrowing depiction of emotional violence.
For the bulk of its 126-minute runtime, Hereditary sustains a continuous, almost rhythmic sense of dread. Yes, there are jump scares and haunted house chills, but the film's most terrifying moments come from the characters' faces as they wrestle with grief and psychological trauma. There's one scene in particular that is possibly the most horrific thing I've ever witnessed in a movie theater – a sequence you can't help but react viscerally to while watching. And then there's the third act. Hereditary doesn't stay one kind of movie for long; Aster's feature debut pivots on perceived and upended expectations in ways that will surprise some while potentially underwhelming others. Despite being wholly original for most of its runtime, the finale succumbs to a few well-worn horror tropes, albeit with enough creative flair to feel somewhat unique.
My disappointment with the film's ending aside, Aster's Hereditary does what all great horror must: It gets under your skin, seizes your heart, and messes with your head. There's nothing more terrifying than feeling powerless, and that's exactly how Aster's film leaves you. There's something inescapable about it; something unconquerable. No one will call Hereditary the feel-good movie of the summer, but it's a must-see as the scariest and most disturbing horror film of 2018 so far.
Adam's Rating: 4 out of 5
Follow Adam on Twitter - @AdamFrazier