From the outside it is possible for a family to look perfect, much like an intricately made wooden model house. But within that façade of normality there can be rot, pain and secrets; like woodworm eating everything from the inside out. Writer-Director Ari Aster has dealt with this subject before in short films such as the disturbing but highly acclaimed The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, and in his first feature film Hereditary he takes these themes to extremes that will drag audiences into a fascinating but horrifying Hell of its own creation.
Hereditary is an interesting movie and one that is probably best experienced knowing very little. There is so much to see, discover and unpick that it feels like some sort of horrific jigsaw puzzle that you get little pieces of which eventually reveals the terrible picture underneath. Yet, it isn’t interested in explaining every little thing, leaving you to mull over and draw your own conclusions. For some this could be frustrating, but I found it just increases the sense of unease and mystery. If something terrible happens to you, you frequently will never fully why it is happening; you may get fragments and pieces, but you won’t know everything, and that is the situation here, both for the characters and the audience. There are also a few shocks to be had along the way, always strategically used, leaving you reeling and unsure of what may happen next. As the plot (aided by the characters) builds, perspective shifts and twists thanks to Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography and Colin Stetson’s music, with a third act that can really only be described as a nightmare.
Whilst much discussion has centred around Toni Collette’s performance, and quite rightly so, the turmoil and spectrum of horror that we see from her is nothing short of award-worthy, it is Alex Wolff who more than holds his own next to her. The young actor - recently been seen in the quietly unnerving My Friend Dahmer - has a very difficult job, at times displaying complex emotional dexterity which would trouble a seasoned actor but it’s a performance that he pulls off with skill and sincerity. Gabriel Byrne provides a more stable centre to the family that is not immune to the breakdown surrounding him and powerless to stop it. The family is being haunted twofold; by their emotional and mental traumas, and by the presence that is growing in the house, and there is the sense that both these things have been passed down between the generations. The house itself it is an additional character in the film with a presence that is tangible in just about every scene and like the characters has its own elements and secrets.
There are a few movies that pair well with Hereditary for those who enjoy a good double feature, and no, one of them is not The Exorcist (despite what posters may tell you), both have the presence of malevolent forces but everything about Aster's feature debut - the camerawork, mood, performances, themes, makes it a very different animal. It does give an estimation of esteem, to say that this film is worthy of being held in the same tier as The Exorcist, but it will give a false impression of the type of experience audiences will be going into. The problem is that describing what films it is similar to could spoil what it has in store. The most comfortable parallels I can make without doing this is to consider the careful pacing, oppressive mood, and family focussed narrative of The Witch, and the themes of grief, guilt and trauma that were so effectively utilised in The Babadook, but then with something more that is entirely its own. You are drawn into the world of the Graham family in a way that makes you so uneasy the barrier between you and the events of the film feels missing that it takes away the usual sense of safety.
Despite the wealth of good qualities to the film, it is one that a lot of casual filmgoers, rather than the more hardcore horror fans, might have some trouble getting on board with. The deliberate pacing may be considered too slow for some, there isn’t a false jump scare in sight, and apart from some effective punctuated moments there is little gore to be found. In short, it doesn’t have what a lot of misguided people might think of as essential elements for a horror movie. But for those who wish for something that shies away from the usual plot pitfalls and clichés, or who can appreciate the intricate film crafting present in the film, Hereditary will reward them. One that will sink into your bones. You may feel more horrified than scared sitting in a theatre and watching the film, but it is later on when you are at home that the full affect hits, when it’s time to turn the lights off and you see a shadow out of the corner of your eye, or you hear a noise or just get a sense of something in the night-time of your home that those feelings will come back full force.
Hereditary is a strange and, at times, surreal movie, but always speaks to a truth of darkness and pain in the human condition. Whether it leaves you unnerved and intrigued or sickened and horrified, it will certainly leave a lingering impression.