Over the course of the last five years, the horror movie genre has been on a tear. From the psychological (The Babadook) to the satirical deconstruction (Happy Death Day) and the thriller (Get Out), we seem to have reached a new golden age for scary movies. Hereditary, the first film by writer-director Ari Aster, only adds to that list.
The nuclear family of mother Annie (Toni Collette), father Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is shaken by the death of Annie’s mother, Ellen. Ellen’s death causes undue stress on the Graham family as the loss takes its toll on each member of the family in its own way; Annie struggles to meet her deadlines as a miniature artist, cope with the loss of her mother, and come to terms with their peculiar mother-daughter relationship, Steve and Peter work to support Annie while confronting indifference over Ellen’s passing, and Charlie, the closest to Ellen, struggles to understand the concept of mortality for the first time. As the mystery and grief surrounding the dead matriarch escalate, tensions in the Graham house reach a breaking point.
Like its contemporary The Witch (another A24 horror film), Hereditary is part family drama, part supernatural horror film. Also like The Witch, Hereditary balances this equation to near perfection. Hereditary owes much of this to its actors; Collette, in particular, is fantastic. She deserves to be in the Oscar conversation for a performance that could go down as a career best, and certainly one that will be remembered in the annals of horror movie history. Wolff and Byrne are also incredible, their subtle distress serving as a reminder of the absurd set of circumstances that threaten to destroy their family. Finally, Shapiro’s work is akin to that of Linda Blair in The Exorcist as a girl who flickers between not quite right and terror-inducing.
Two twists, one in the first third and another at the end, will haunt the audience’s memory for years to come, but in Hereditary, what you see is just as affecting as what you hear. The barbed, unnerving noises concocted by a sadistic group of sound editors might stick with you longer than any twist. A tongue clicking noise made by Shapiro (a clever addition to the script by Aster) will be tied to the movie for years to come, but it’s these sounds, in combination with a discordant score, that gives the movie its power.
A final detail, tying the cinematography of Annie’s miniatures to the Graham house, leaves us to question whether the family has any control over its future, or if fate has already decided what happens next. Perhaps the Grahams, like the audience, can only sit back and watch. This is astute arthouse horror close to its best. Add Hereditary to the list of modern horror classics.