After the rather abysmal showing for the genre in the 'aughts, horror has made a major resurgence in the last decade. Part of the trend has been for some of the small, artsier indies getting surprisingly wide releases and marketing budgets, The VVitch and It Comes At Night being two of the most prominent examples. They've gotten somewhat mixed reactions - some appreciate the slow-burn, intellectual approach, while others are put off by the lack of distinct jump-scares or other genre staples, to the point that some argue they aren't horror films. (They are.) The VVitch, ultimately, made solid money for such an arty, low-budget film and is generally well-regarded, while It Comes at Night was widely rejected by audiences. Hereditary joins this group, and, at least initially, seems to have found greater success than even The VVitch, though it remains to be seen how it ultimately fares.
Writer / director Ari Aster, in his debut feature, meticulously crafts a grim, morbid psychological horror film that may or may not be supernatural as well, depending on the sanity of certain characters. In a brilliant first shot, we see a room full of miniature houses, focusing in on one room - which soon becomes a real room in which we begin to meet the Graham family. They're struggling to deal with the death of their matriarch, Ellen, a difficult woman with multiple personality disorder who caused deep psychological scars in her daughter Annie (Toni Collette). Annie works as a miniature artist, and tries to deal with her trauma by recreating pieces of her life in her miniatures. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is a patient man who nonetheless ultimately tried to separate Annie from Ellen, something she's come to wish had happened sooner. She kept her mother away from her own now-teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), but was guilted into letting her younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) spend time with her, especially when her mother became truly ill toward the end and lived with them. As Charlie begins to seem more and more disturbed in the aftermath, Annie tries to comfort her amidst her own painful struggle to move out of her mother's shadow. Meanwhile, Steve learns that Ellen's grave was spectacularly desecrated, and hides this from Annie.
Aster and his crew create a suffocating atmosphere of unnerving creepiness. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski emphasizes eerie reds seeping into an otherwise earthy palette, and manages some incredible low-light photography. The sound design and what I suppose is technically the music carefully do everything to keep you off-balance. That music, in particular, is a hair-raising, unharmonic mix of woodwinds, strings, synths, and deep bass brooding that gets under your skin and never gives you a moment's rest. And with such a bleak, humorless story of a family destroying itself thanks to the inner turmoil left by its abusive matriarch, Hereditary is a truly horrific and nearly unbearable experience.
Every performance is top-notch. Toni Collette delivers an astounding range, running the gamut from 70s Pacino to 90s Pacino in intensity. Annie begins the film overwhelmed by the trauma of how her mother quietly tore her life apart, then has her heart shattered, and gradually has her soul consumed and obliterated. Sometimes this journey comes blasting out of the surface, as in a confrontational dinner sequence; at others, it's buried beneath a layer of calm as thick as the earth's crust, as when she shrugs off Steve's horror at her blunt artistic depiction of one of the film's most wrenching moments as a "Neutral portrayal of the event."
Alex Wolff (the kid version of the Rock in Jumanji 2) portrays a similar emotional descent, but with a much steeper early dive, and a long, desperate attempt to pull back from the abyss he's already deep within. Milly Shapiro is creepy beyond belief, as though she's a quiet alien awkwardly trying to understand the human body it's stuck in. This leaves Gabriel Byrne's Steve as the relative straight man, the one human approaching emotional and psychic health under the circumstances, which, unfortunately, leaves him every bit as unprepared for what's coming. All these characters are complex, flawed humans, sometimes trying to do good, sometimes giving into the darkness engulfing them.
Every character in this movie at every moment is either inwardly imploding in grief, outwardly exploding in grief, or screaming and crying in terror. Combined with the atmosphere and a relentlessly brutal storyline, this creates a gripping, depressing experience... and also an immensely unpleasant one that lasts over two hours, without a single moment of relief, hope, or beauty. For many, this will make for a powerful, wrenching experience. For others, the sheer exhausting oppression over such a long period of time with no catharsis will becoming numbing, and the spectacularly bonkers but ingenious finale will be of little more than intellectual interest for its sheer weirdness.
I fell in the latter category.
And with that, there's little left to discuss that isn't a massive spoiler; if the film intrigues you, even the end of the first act is best experienced rather than known. So here is your warning: from this point, everything is SPOILERS.
Annie, wanting Charlie to get out of the house and socialize in the hopes it will help her, effectively forces Peter to take her to a party he's attending. But, during the party, Charlie has a piece of chocolate cake that contains nuts, to which she's allergic. She starts to gag and says her throat feels like it's growing, and Peter rightly carries her back to the car and speeds toward the hospital. Charlie, coughing and gagging, sticks her head out the window to try to get something out of her. A dead deer in the night road causes Peter to swerve toward a telephone pole, which decapitates Charlie.
This sucker does not mess around.
It's a sequence that jacks your heart rate through the roof before absolutely destroying you. Wolff really shines in these moments. Peter, understandably, has no ability to handle or even process what's happened. He can't even look. He simply drives home and goes to bed. Annie discovers the headless corpse of her daughter in the car the next morning. Peter hears her screams.
If there's a moment where the film started to lose me, it was in the aftermath of this unspeakable tragedy. After the funeral, Steve and Annie both try to find closure by looking through and touching Charlie's things; Steve flips through her book of drawings. These moments could be touching, but even here, the music loudly drones in disconcordant horror tones. It's not that the moments needed appropriately sad music, necessarily, but silence would have worked. However, this is over half an hour into the film, and the unnerving soundtrack and unrelenting bleakness are starting to get monotonous, particularly when they're clashing with the imagery. Still, you can't entirely carp about a horror film willing to brutally off one of its central characters - and the youngest child - a quarter of the way into the movie. Whatever my issues, I wouldn't dream of accusing the film doesn't have guts.
Peter begins hallucinating hearing Charlie in the house. The already strained relationship between Peter and Annie breaks down completely. Annie, it seems, sleepwalks, and during one sleepwalking session years before, she apparently doused herself, Peter, and Charlie in paint thinner and lit a match before waking up. Peter never accepted that she was sleepwalking. Combined with Charlie's death, the two blame each other and can't take it anymore.
Annie meets a person outside a support group she can't bring herself to go to named Joan who seems friendly and is willing to listen to her. Joan ultimately tells Annie about a seance where she learned how to speak to her own deceased grandchild... then shows her that she's telling the truth, and tells her the secret. This is roughly 70 minutes into the film, and if it seems like very little plot has transpired for over an hour of movie, that's because very little has. This is absolutely a movie that could have been trimmed by 20 minutes to great benefit.
Still, Annie ropes Peter and Steve into joining her for a seance to bring Charlie back. By the end of the seance, there's no question that the supernatural is here, even if Steve denies it. Not only are objects moved and a spirit felt - Peter mentions that the air is bending - but Annie is briefly possessed by a terrified and confused Charlie. Steve snaps her out of it with a glass of water when Peter utterly breaks down. This is yet another set piece of impressive intensity, but the whole experience is simply becoming wearying by this point; a tighter runtime would have made this sequence sing.
As we finally reach the third act, things quickly degenerate. Which is saying something at this point. Annie believes Charlie's spirit has become malevolent, and goes to confront Joan. She doesn't find her, but does discover that Joan was friends with her mother Ellen, who turns out to have had a deeply-rooted interest in the occult. She suspects her mother was trying to bring a demon named Paimon into the world and letting it possess Charlie, but it didn't take correctly, because the demon prefers a male host. Desperate, Annie tries to burn Charlie's notebook of drawings that she used as a focus to bring her back, but lighting the book on fire also spontaneously lights Annie herself on fire, and she backs out. The book will clearly defend itself. Annie goes to the attic, looking for more of her mother's things for answers, and finds her rotten corpse, headless.
Peter's visions become increasingly intense, until he's possessed at school and shatters his nose banging his head into his desk. He's brought home and put to bed, and Annie tries to convince Steve to burn Charlie's book, since she can't manage to do it herself given the cost of self-immolation. She tells him how completely she loves him, and he looks back and feels the same. And while he's unconvinced of her raving, he almost indulges her, then decides it's better for her and Peter if he doesn't indulge her and instead calls the cops. This pushes Annie over the edge. She grabs the book, and throws it in the fire -- which, in a cruel twist, instantly immolates Steve. She has just enough time for what's left of her mind and spirit to feel the crushing horror of this before she's possessed. And things go absolutely bonkers.
Peter wakes up. The house is overrun by demonic spirits who haunt him until, beset by the sight of his levitating mother decapitating herself with a wire, he leaps out an upper-story window in an attempt to escape. This sequence showcases some electrifying effects; in particular, a demon running across a wall with eerie grace.
Peter gets up shakily, and sees his mother float into Charlie's treehouse. He follows. There, the followers of Paimon, dead and alive, many nude, and two decapitated, worship him and welcome him into his new body. On the wall, a photo of Ellen proclaims her a queen. The film ends by pulling out of the treehouse as though it, too, is one of Annie's miniatures.
The opening and closing motif of mirrors emphasizes a discussion in Peter's class early in the film. They're discussing the particular nature of Greek tragedy, where the decisions of the characters are meaningless because the tragedy is already set in motion and inevitable. It's an early hint at precisely how much chance this family had of surviving Ellen's deal with a devil. (A later class discussion mentions sacrifices to old gods, though we don't hear much of it because Peter is busy getting possessed as part of a sacrifice to an old god.)
Writing it out like this, the utterly insane finale sounds like fun in its dark, nasty way. And, at the end of a film that wasn't so endlessly oppressive, if probably would have been. But, unlike the VVitch, which kept things to a tight 93 minutes, Hereditary runs 127 minutes. There's minimal plot for the first 70 minutes before it picks up, and a ton of plot in the last 10. To some extent, the atmosphere and performances compensate, but, again, these are so intensely unpleasant that the experience ultimately becomes unbearable. Yes, if you screech and bang and scream and cry for two hours, it will, in fact, make an audience deeply uncomfortable and frightened, but that doesn't mean they're going to like it.
And yet, it's difficult to be too hard on the film for this. It may be overlong and aurally monotonous, but it uses an effective atmosphere and powerhouse performances to create a memorable mood for an unusually intelligent horror film. Within this tale lies a compelling metaphor for the way a selfish, abusive parent can rend apart her descendants' psyche through generations. Where A Quiet Place showed a family ultimately coming together in a difficult situation, Hereditary shows a difficult situation driving a family to violent tear itself apart. For many viewers, that seems to be compelling, to the point that some are preemptively calling it one of the greatest horror films ever made. Perhaps that will be its legacy.
Still, I can ultimately only be honest to my own reaction, and I ultimately found it admirable but off-putting. Horror films are supposed to be difficult, by their nature, but there's a point that's just too much. A Quiet Place left me exhilarated and moved; Annihilation left me fascinated and stunned; Hereditary left me with sore muscles and a headache.
Director: Ari Aster
Producers: Kevin Frakes, Lars Knudsen, Buddy Patrick
Writer: Ari Aster
Cast: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, Ann Dowd
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing horror violence, language, and non-sexual nudity.
Budget: $10 million
Box Office: Its opening weekend was $13 million, a record for studio A24. Total gross should be between just below $30 million to just below $40 million, depending on whether or not word of mouth catches on with enough of the audience. Either way, a definite success.