If, as it has been claimed by many, Hereditary is the scariest movie of recent times, then perhaps that serves more as a reflection of what has preceded it, rather than an insight into what Ari Aster’s family psychodrama really has to offer. Yes, it is creepy and deeply unsettling at times, but simply labelling it a horror movie is to deliver a somewhat simplistic assessment of a film that is essentially about trauma, grief and family dysfunction. It is about how the sins of a person can be transmitted to their children; an inescapable burden that they are forced to bear through no fault of their own. Sure, these sins are somewhat extreme in the case of the Graham family, but the basic premise is hardly new. What sets Hereditary apart though is the performance of Toni Collette in the lead as an artist and mother who finds herself spiralling deep into a chasm of darkness and despair. Yes, it is good, but much like the hype that surrounded Get Out last year, it seems that the love for Hereditary is derived from a desperation to discover a contemporary horror classic that resonates as much as the genre touchstones from which Aster has obviously drawn influence, such as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Amityville Horror or even Psycho.
Annie Graham (Collette) is an artist who creates miniature worlds, hauntingly realistic renditions of houses and other settings that capture both the beauty and the mundane of everyday life in exquisite detail. These miniatures become as much a part of the unease as anything else and it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the model houses that Annie creates and the real thing. In fact, the film opens with wide shot which reveals one of Annie’s creations, the façade removed to expose the various living spaces within. However, as we creep closer, the model bedroom morphs into a real room within the Graham house, with the transition between the two imperceptible. Needless to say, the Graham’s live in a large, isolated house, a set-up that lends itself to all manner of ghastly goings-on, although the way in which Aster lights each scene, which is more in keeping with a stage play than a typical film set-up, is somewhat disconcerting, which was perhaps his intention. In fact, all the interiors of the house present more as a stage set from a theatre production rather than a lived-in family residence, a deliberate ploy perhaps to represent the house as nothing more than a scaled-up version of one of Annie’s projects.
The story begins at the funeral for Annie’s mother, a particularly unpleasant woman if Annie’s eulogy is any indication and whose death seemingly triggers the tragedy and torment that follows. Much more about mental illness and psychological collapse in the face of tragedy than it is concerned with things that go bump in the night (well, at least that is what it seems to be for most of the running time), it is Collette’s performance more than anything that keeps you interested. Prone to sleepwalking and incapable of articulating her emotions beyond the occasional hysterical outburst, Annie’s behaviour proves particularly perilous for Peter (Alex Wolff), her teenage slacker son, as she endures a level of torment that perhaps extends even beyond that endured by Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist or, more recently, Essie Davis in The Babadook. Peter – who looks much, much older than the high school student he is supposed to be – is haunted by demons of his own, leaving husband/father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) as a largely helpless, and hapless, bystander. Whilst the sheer strangeness of daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is disconcerting, it is not explored in any meaningful way, while the only other significant character is Joan (Ann Dowd), a woman who befriends Annie at a grief counselling session and ultimately plays a significant role in her psychological collapse.
Whilst it is certainly overstepping to declare Hereditary a genre masterpiece, there is no denying that it is a very impressive debut feature for Aster, who also wrote the screenplay. There is nothing that will have you jumping out of your seat, but it is a very disturbing series of events that unfold for this most unfortunate family, so kudos to Collette for embracing the darkness with such gusto to deliver a gut-wrenching performance as a woman whose demons (both literal and figurative) are unrelenting in their determination to destroy her sanity. Although a little too long when it doesn’t need to be, Hereditary is a very disturbing exploration of sorrow and loss that might just mess with your head.