We’ve all been warned by now of the terrors that await us within Ari Aster’s feature directorial debut Hereditary. “Scarier than you’ve been told!” “Scariest movie I’ve seen in my adult life!” “A new horror classic.” “You’ve been warned.” Critics are even saying that Toni Collette’s gripping, intense performance will test the Academy’s definition of great filmmaking, and willingness to put forth such a shocking genre masterwork. I’m not here to dispute any of these notions necessarily. Believe the hype, but don’t believe the trailers. This isn’t the horror movie of your dreams, it’s the horror movie of your nightmares.
Annie (Toni Collette), an artist specializing in autobiographical dioramas, just lost her mother Ellen, who she had spent three years caring for through a spiral into dementia. While Annie visits a group meeting for the grieving, we learn that she didn’t have a good relationship with her mother, who was secretive, suffered from DID, and was…difficult. In fact, the whole of Annie’s family from her youth experienced a great deal of suffering at the hands of mental illness, themselves, or each other. But Annie seems past all that now, almost normal. And the nuclear family she’s built with her husband seems A-OK. Right?
In the weeks following the death of Ellen, Annie’s family begins to erode in shocking ways, which I can’t describe here—not only would it be rude to spoil the movie, but some of it is, like I said, shocking. Her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who already has outsider status thanks to a nervous tic, nut allergies, and an odd hobby, is devastated by the death of her grandma and adds in some new strange behaviors. Peter (Alex Wolff), takes his throne as the king of teen sulking and begins an angsty rebellion. All the while, Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) does his best to hold it all together, even through the news that Ellen’s grave has been defiled, even through the late night seances, and even through…again, it’s those shocking bits that I just can’t give away.
Amazing performances by all, especially the very talented Milly Shapiro, whose Charlie is both empathetic and chilling. But the real soul of the movie is in the direction and production. Small, eerie details in the background of otherwise normal moments give the feeling of having just seen a ghost. And sometimes you have. There are shots in the climactic scene, up in the attic of the house, that are sure to become classic stills for horror enthusiasts, along the lines of Rosemary’s Baby or Suspiria.
But even from the first scene, you know you’re in for some brilliant filmmaking. Hereditary opens on a house miniature in a workshop. Horror-movie music plays—the grinding, discordant score that haunts tense genre films these days, in this case scored by Colin Stetson (who probably smells great, based on name alone)—and the camera zooms in on a bedroom. In it, a father enters and wakes his sleeping son. It sounds so simple, but it’s a magical effect that eases you into the dark ride about as a gently as a carnival worker with a grudge. From there, the movie’s horror unfolds like the realization that you’re having a heart attack. A series of dysrhythmia, normalcy, dysrhythmia, and a recoup to normalcy, until the beats become a frenzied cacophony…until the final grim moments unfold and all that is left is a terrifying stillness where nothing is okay.