Director: Ari Aster
Studios: A24, PalmStar Media, Finch Entertainment, Windy Hill Pictures
Starring: Toni Collette, Ann Dowd, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro
Tagline: Every family tree hides a secret.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, family drama, mystery, occult, witches, cult
Scare score: A
Plot overview: After the death of her secretive mother, Annie Graham’s (Collette) family begins to be plagued by suspicious and tragic events. Stricken by grief, Annie falls farther away from her family: strained husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), withdrawn son Peter (Wolff), and distant daughter Charlie (Shapiro). As the family continues to unravel, Annie finds solace in Joan (Dowd), a woman from a grief support group who tries convincing her that the dead may not really be gone after all.
This is a stunningly horrifying film that I would recommend to anyone. If you want to truly spiral into terror and insanity and spill your popcorn all over the place, this is the movie for you.
I think what I love most about this movie is that it keeps on taking you where you do not expect it to go. It’s really not a genre bender, but I swear, even the second time I watched it I was so impressed and delighted with the twists and turns it takes. This movie constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat as its horrible reality unfurls.
We start with the Graham family, currently faced with the loss of Annie’s mysterious mother, Ellen. Though grief-struck, we come to realize that it is not at the loss of the old woman but at something deeper and perhaps long gone. In fact, the only person who seems truly upset with Ellen’s passing is young Charlie, a seeming outcast who is often silent save for her habitual tongue click. Her fixation with building toys and models with mismatched heads feels somehow disturbing but pales in comparison to her mother’s works: Annie is an artist renowned for her work crafting miniatures, impeccably created scenes from her past and present all on display in smaller scale in her workshop. Her art should be for the world to see, but with an upcoming exhibition looming on Annie’s mind and feeling ever more unlikely, the miniatures instead become for Annie alone. They provide what she calls “a neutral view,” but we come to learn that these fastidiously-made models are a way for Annie to reflect on her own choices and memories and control everything therein.
Despite their troubles, the family maintains a semblance of normality until another freak accident spins everything out of control. More on that after the Spoiler jump.
The acting in this film is fantastic. There is something sinister about Collette throughout the movie that makes you question her at every turn, even when it feels like she is the only person so desperately trying to keep her family from falling apart. The movie provides beautiful commentary on grief, mental illness, and family, especially between children and their parents. It forces us to ask what is the meaning (or purpose) of family? What do we inherit aside from names and traditions? What things do we carry with and inside of us, even if we would rather not? I’m definitely on the bandwagon that Collette was snubbed for major award recognition because her performance here is wide-ranging and superb and should go down as a classic in the horror genre. I was equally impressed by young Alex Wolff, a former child star on Nickelodeon and now a budding actor and director. The role of Peter is crucial to the film and Wolff portrays the reserved, greasy-haired, pot-smoking teen so naturally. I thought it was especially wonderful how vulnerable Peter was, and the scenes were he is clearly terrified or left crying really stuck with me. Ann Dowd was also a treat, and I thought her voice was really perfect for her role and the lines she has in the movie.
Furthermore, the cinematography is beautiful. The shots in and around the Grahams’ home were fantastic, as were the many scenes taking place in and around cars: I especially liked the use of the rearview mirrors. There is also the terrific use of the color red: From heat lamps to break lights to bloody eyes, there is something haunting and demonic about it. Toward the end of the film, we are treated to some really spectacular camera work as an unsteady, wavering camera follows characters around the dark house. The movie plays with the concept of Annie’s miniatures vs. real life and several times we’re not sure if what we’re looking at is real or an imitation— or if it matters either way. Is this Annie’s perspective and can we trust it? Or are the lofty, overhead shots supposed to be from God’s eye (or something else floating above)? Lastly, the film has some delightfully unexpected transitions, such as when day suddenly turns to night in the same frame or when ominous bodies and figures are teased just in or just out of focus.
I also thought the movie had great music, most of all the stunning orchestrations in the final sequence, and a lot of the soundtrack reminded me of The VVitch, which is also distributed by A24, one of my favorite production companies of the moment both for horror and other genres. I’m currently counting down the days until Ari Aster’s next movie (also with A24), Midsommar.
I love how quickly things start to fall apart for the characters in this movie, and with most of the action concentrated in the first and third acts, plus plenty of scares and drama when you least expect it, you’re pretty captivated for the entire thing. We have the classic case of an unreliable narrator potentially slipping into madness, which means we’re never quite sure who or what to believe as events start to spiral out of control. We learn early on that Annie’s family has a history of severe mental illness, especially disorders with high rates of heritability such as schizophrenia or depression. There is horror in the film long before the thrilling end, and that is in the death of the family unit. As the Grahams continue to fall apart, evil continues to gain a stronger hold. I thought one of the saddest moments of the film was when a manic Annie tries comforting Peter by acknowledging that something terrible is happening, reassuring her terrified son and saying “I’m the only one who can fix this.” At this point, we already don’t believe her. But is mental health really any explanation for what’s happening here, or is it something more supernatural entirely?
I adore this movie. If you pay close enough attention, you’ll realize that something is off from the earliest scenes, perhaps starting with the man at Ellen’s funeral smiling so intently at Charlie. I loved how these unnerving and suspenseful moments grew in frequency and scale throughout the movie, ultimately leading to the climax of the cult moving in on the Graham household. Shots with ominous figures just in range but still obscured are some of my favorite in horror, and this movie starts with single figures before giving us that incredible shot of dozens of naked bodies surrounding the house. I think the disturbing use of naked bodies in horror is incredibly effective, especially if done the way this movie or It Follows does it. We’re so used to the hypersexualization of bodies in horror that their unwanted appearance perverts the entire process and makes already-scary scenes all the more frightening.
Other details I loved in this movie were the awesome seance scenes and the unforgettable finale with Toni Collette lingering in the shadows of the ceiling. I’m always into a classroom scene that mirrors the plot (à la Halloween), and we get several of them in this movie if you know to pay attention to them. At one point we can read “Punishment brings wisdom” on the blackboard in Peter’s classroom, and we also hear a teacher explaining that a character’s “murder was commanded by the gods.” Little does Peter know while zoning out in class and staring at his crush’s butt that he, too, is involved in a much larger and sinister plot with otherworldly beings taking control. I thought the tongue click may have been the single most ingenious thing this movie did (who knew how scary it sounded?), and I love that something as simple as a nut allergy was enough to take down a demon, or at least his weak human form. The car scene with the two kids in the middle of nowhere is just such a treat, because it breaks my number one cardinal rule and takes you so by surprise you almost can’t believe it’s really happening. Though I find it hard to believe that even a traumatized teen would be able to simply drive away and go to bed without telling his parents, Collette’s reaction to this untimely (and familiar) loss is fantastic. As the story comes together, it makes sense why Annie described it as feeling like she “gave up” Charlie to her mother (never let grandma breastfeed the kids), or why her brother committed suicide and blamed his decision on his mother for “putting people inside” of him. It’s no surprise that in the West, the medical model is preferred over supernatural explanations, and mental disorders are diagnosed in cases that other cultures might attribute to spiritual causes. Hereditary shares that theme with The Exorcist, not to mention the whole possession of innocent children by demon kings of the west.
The ending of the film is one of the most memorable things to happen to horror in recent years, and I truly hope the movie goes down in horror halls of fame far outside of Horror Snob’s own blog.
Final critique: This movie is a treat and I would recommend it to anybody, but I would warn them that they are really in for a wild and scary ride. Hereditary takes twists and turns unlike we’ve seen in a long time, and it masterfully mixes classic horror themes and tropes with new and refreshing characters and situations. Hats off to Ari Aster on this screenplay; this is the kind of horror movie that can redeem the entire genre for mainstream audiences. I look forward to rewatching this time and again.