Hereditary Review (Sundance 2018) – Grief and Ghosts Make for Monumental Terror

Starring Toni Collette, Alex Woolf, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd

Written and directed by Ari Aster

The Babadook. The Witch. Under the Shadow. Many of the decade’s best horror films started off by scaring audiences at Sundance. With offerings as diverse and unconventional as Mandy and Piercing this year, it wasn’t clear which entry would be the standout scarefest. It came as a macabre delight that A24’s latest genre production, shot on location in Park City, Utah, is not only magnificently made – it’s utterly terrifying. Judging by the audible reactions of the film’s audience on January 21st, Hereditary is poised to be 2018’s great horror breakout.

Debut filmmaker Ari Aster crafts a portrait of a wealthy family – Toni Colette as the frustrated artist and mother, Gabriel Byrne as her well-intentioned husband, Alex Woolf as their detached son, and young Tony-winning actress Milly Shapiro, chillingly self-aware as his off-kilter sister. We meet the four family members as they deal with the death of their reclusive martiarch, in perhaps dubious ways; but when bizarre manifestations plague them and tragedies begin to mount, they must confront the possibility that they are cursed.

In its setup, the film appears to be formulaic. There’s a creaky old house with secret photo albums, weird noises, potential apparitions, disturbing nightmares. Aster knows and loves genre – he said as much after the screening – but he is far from complacent with tropes. Because of his original approach, this writer insists that people avoid plot details at all costs. Our audience went in blind, and we were much better for it; the story takes hard detours that seem impossible even once they’ve occurred. Yet, it never loses sight of its central issue: a family torn apart by grief.

Like the best horror films, Hereditary could easily have been a drama. The performances would have pulled it off, too – Woolf is surprisingly, achingly endearing, while Colette astounds in her emotional acrobatics without ever giving up credibility. Because of this, the scary stuff works even more brilliantly. Aster wastes no time introducing us to the supernatural (or is it something else?); and while the film’s second quarter is devoted almost entirely to character, the pace never feels slow. The nightmares are brilliantly structured, never over-the-top or predictable, but not subdued either – Aster’s images are horrifically bold. The visceral effect amounts to almost agonizing dread, the kind that wracks the body and the mind.

Sensory immersion is essential in a scary movie, and Aster commands his world with weird detail and constant style. The cinematography is kinetic and vivid, with pitch-perfect lighting that reveals just enough to chill us, all framed throughout a perfectly creepy house designed specifically for this film. Colette’s character builds miniatures of her family and environments, which serve as a delightfully subtle means of foreboding future horror. While the score feels overwhelming in the first scenes, its scope lends the film an epic quality, suggesting hellish forces beyond what we can see. Aster doesn’t show us all that much either, until he has to – following the age-old rule of terror. The uneasy performances and clever visual tricks create a thick sense of unease that mounts into genuine fear. It’s rare to be so thoroughly, exhaustingly frightened by a film, and that’s what makes Hereditary special.

The story’s images and decisions don’t always feel connected to each other; but at over two hours in length, there are plenty of foreboding details that go unnoticed on a first viewing. Horror is subjective, so this film is bound to disappoint some viewers – but its incredible psychological power, its emotional depth, and constant supernatural inventiveness all speak to a new voice in macabre cinema. If this is any indication, 2018 is bound to be another stellar year for the genre – but few films will match the uncanny mastery of this grim, harrowing meditation on the madness of grief and the way family can destroy us.

  • Hereditary


Ari Aster’s assured debut terrifies through its phenomenal performances, powerful story, and fierce, detailed approach to supernatural tropes.

User Rating 2.64 (11 votes)


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