Many films are labelled as horror movies currently, and it is often misleading. Many of these films are either better labelled as psychological thrillers, or they are simply gory and hard to take seriously. Hereditary is neither of these things. Sure, there are a few gory moments, but each one relates to the story. And they are extremely unsettling. Some scenes in this film make The Exorcist or The Shining seem tame and fluffy. Okay, perhaps that is an exaggeration of immense proportions, perhaps it isn’t, but there is no denying the ferocity of this contribution to the genre with a feeling of tense pressure and horror that few films in existence can match.
Presented with a long line of text at the beginning of the film, we learn quickly that the history of the family is peppered with sadness as we are taken to the funeral of Annie’s mother, herself a mother of two. She doesn’t seem sad and upon arriving home she asks her husband if she should be feeling something more. We gradually learn of the relationship between Annie and her mother, which sounds strained to say the least.
Rewinding back to before the funeral, in the opening scene, we are taken into a room that is filled with extremely detailed miniature models. The camera pans slowly, showing the work, eventually locking onto a model of part of her house, zooming into the bedroom of her son, which gradually morphs into reality as her son is told to get ready for the funeral. It is an interesting introduction that can be interpreted in many ways, but this would lead into spoiler territory.
Much of the film is a a slow burn and will challenge those who lack patience (many sighs were heard by a guy sitting behind me). This doesn’t detract at all from the strange atmosphere that hangs in the air, even during the early scene at the funeral, already featuring a couple of odd moments, impossible to tell how they will relate later, if at all. It is here we meet young Charlie, the 13 year old daughter. It soon becomes clear that something isn’t right. Her demenour, behaviour and facial expressions all point to her being the catalyst for the horrifying events that later occur. But similar points could be said about her mother, as well as her dead grandmother.
Extremely refreshing is the almost complete lack of jump scares. It also subverts almost all horror tropes, with the slow moving camerawork adding to this. You will think you know what is coming next, and you’ll often be wrong. The creativity on display in must be applauded. These moments continue in intensity and creepiness that are sure to send a chill or three, or seventeen, down your spine. Considering that this involves spiritual and supernatural themes, it makes the Insidious films and similar fodder seem… well, incredibly lame. I vividly recall throwing popcorn at the screen during much of the second installment of Insidious.
Aussie Toni Collette, playing Annie, apparently said she would never do a movie like this, but once she was sent the script she immediately jumped aboard, and her performance is intense, to understate drastically. The little known but experienced Alex Wolff as a bong-smoking teenage son is also brilliant, especially in the second and final act as the film rises in power. Young Milly Shapiro as Charlie is also memorable, especially in a film such as this, especially her nailing of facial expressions. The rest of the cast is near perfect; Ann Dowd must also be mentioned as she is incredibly convincing in her, shall we say, social intensity.
The score by Colin Stetson, who worked on The Rover and Arrival, also must be credited as influential, as it is not only perfect for a horror movie, it is never overwhelming, nor does it manipulate, rarely if ever rising to obviously signify a significant moment. The cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is equally perfect, its movement adds yet more suspense as it slowly pans to a reveal. Or the lack of one. This movement increases in speed as the film kicks into higher gears, adding yet another layer.
Ari Aster, writer and director, in his first feature film has created a unique experience that will play with your assumptions, as well as your mind as there are a few scenes that are hard to forget. This could be labelled a psychological thriller, which it certainly is, but it is also so much more. It is also advisable to go into the film blind. Don’t watch the trailers, watch the film knowing nothing beforehand and your experience will be much more enjoyable.