As writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature, the summer release Hereditary is an incredibly thought-provoking work that uses the horror genre as a vehicle to explore issues such as familial relationships, tragedy, and the difficulties of human communication. With a runtime of just over two hours, the film uses its themes, cinematography, motifs, and acting to deliver a grisly portrait that both shakes off the common ambiguities found in many modern horror films while still leaving audiences with room for further speculation.
Hereditary is the story of the Grahams, a family living in a small Northwest mountain town. When Ellen, the grandmother of the house passes away, her daughter Annie (Toni Colette) struggles with the ambivalent and cryptic relationship the two had. In the beginning, we’re informed that Ellen was involved in secret rituals and practices that Annie has a painfully limited understanding of, yet the supernatural horrors of the film are primarily manifest through the relationship Annie shares with her two children, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff).
Further discussion of the plot would quickly lead into spoiler territory, so let me just say that Hereditary plays with fear and unease on multiple levels. While Peter is shielded from Ellen‘s cryptic past with her mother, Charlie is revealed as somewhat of an agent of her grandmother’s posthumous agenda. The tragedies that continue to befall the family are results of both supernatural scares as well as the culmination of accidental, bitter human error. When these moments occur, Hereditary takes an incredibly long, painful time to let both the characters as well as the audience process what’s just occurred, as well as the lasting effects these events will have. The acting in these scenes in particular is utterly chilling, and I found them to be some of the most terrifying scenes in the film despite the relative unimportance of the supernatural/horror element throughout them.
A very prevalent question that comes to my mind regarding Hereditary is where it falls within the broader horror genre. It is most definitely a horror film, though much of the beginning and middle of the film adopt an introspective, almost melodramatic tone despite the ever-present elements of the supernatural. The sound design and foley do incredible jobs of creating an atmosphere of unease, though at times I couldn’t help but feel as though it hyped up possible jumpscares that hardly ever actually came, at least not in the way you imagine traditional horror movie jumpscares.
I can’t help but feel that the supernatural elements and horror imagery, despite being present throughout the movie, become laid on a bit too thick near the ending, taking away from the relentless melodrama found throughout earlier portions of the film. Where the grotesque fantasies of Guillermo Del Toro seamlessly deliver a clear vision in spite of their disparate influences, Aster’s script can occasionally come across as if the psychological, dramatic fear wrestles against a more standard horror of cryptic seance chants and occult imagery. The latter exponentially seizes hold of the film’s final shots, and although it makes acceptable narrative sense, its relatively over-the-top nature can dampen the gruesome melodrama that paves the film to that end.
Despite the somewhat shifty atmosphere of its horror aspect, Hereditary is a film that features incredible cinematography, sound design, and acting. Though some viewers may enjoy the rather subdued usage of jumpscares, the film has no shortage of unsettling moments and can make for a nice chiller for the beginning of the summer blockbuster season.
COVER PHOTO: Esquire