Written and directed by Ari Aster
While what I consider to be “the best horror film of all time” depends on my current mood or company, I can state with confidence that Hereditary is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. For context, I previously considered The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, and The Conjuring to be the ultimate trifecta of fear; and Hereditary tops them all. But unlike those examples, whose power and impact are dependent on the supernatural, you could remove all genre trappings from Hereditary, and it would still be a devastating experience—one most mainstream moviegoers are ill-equipped to endure.
While the (potentially) paranormal elements are slow to emerge, there’s a scene in the first act that I predict will send even hardened horror fans fleeing. It’s a soul-crushing, trauma-inducing scenario with visceral imagery to match, an emotional and visual assault that hits like a sucker punch with PTSD-triggering potential. Those who can endure the ride to its conclusion will simply be able to refer to “that scene” for immediate recall.
The woman to my left drew her knees up to her chest and put her hands over her face; the gentleman to my right unconsciously uttered, “Oh my God… Oh my God… Oh my God…”
As indelible as this moment is, however, first-time director Ari Aster manages to deliver additional moments of equal intensity—liberally.
Hereditary, as the name implies, examines the inescapable horror of our own DNA; just as someone born to parents afflicted with schizophrenia may find himself susceptible, members of the Graham family are literally cursed by coding embedded on a cellular level. This is illustrated in the genetic disabilities and food allergies of 14-year-old Charlie Graham (Milly Shapiro). Similarly, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is often emotionally abusive towards her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne); but character development reveals she is (probably unconsciously) continuing the cycle of her own abuse.
Family dysfunction hits oppressively palpable levels of intensity, making any uncomfortable holiday gathering you or I have ever experienced seem mild by contrast. It’s easy to believe a mother loves her children unconditionally, but Hereditary convinces us a parent can hate her offspring too—a crippling revelation that wouldn’t carry such devastating weight without Collette’s Oscar-caliber performance. Inescapable tragedies often bring families together where healing begins through expressions of shared grief. The events that plague the Grahams, however, pit parent against child and husband against wife until the unit becomes an archipelago of waring islands, each threatening to obliterate the other. All of this before the lurking supernatural undertones are even identified or named.
Hereditary is a game-changer, something many horror fans will consider instantly canonical. You may have already read Ben Larned’s review from Sundance last January, but this isn’t a film that can be encapsulated by a single 1,000-word recap. Plus, Hereditary’s emphasis on family dysfunction means viewer experiences may differ greatly depending on personal histories. It’s the kind of film worthy of an entire college course, where its numerous subtexts can be dissected and analyzed with a multitude of creative and academic insights. Like shapes that emerge from the darkness once our eyes adjust, the film’s intricacies will reveal themselves to those who look deeply into its darkest corners. Eighty years from now, we’ll be discussing Hereditary in the same breath as Martyrs, The Witch, The Exorcist, and The Shining.
And speaking of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic, many viewers and reviewers have already made connections and noted The Shining’s influence on Hereditary. And while there are echoes, Aster isn’t as enamored by the seminal film as many believe. “I thought The Shining was a comedy,” he told Elijah Wood, who moderated the post-screening Q&A at SXSW. “You could tell that guy wanted to kill his family the moment you see them in the car together!” This doesn’t undermine Kubrick’s achievement; rather, it’s proof there’s more than one formula for absolute horror. Aster and Kubrick may have arrived at the same destination, but they took different routes—indeed, they used different maps.
In addition to presenting a family whose suffering is legendary, Aster has adorned the supernatural portions of Hereditary with a vast and unique mythology horror fans will adore. Prepare to meet a brand-new defiler, an entity who could find peers among the likes of Pazuzu, Sinister’s Bughuul (aka Mr. Boogie), and The Conjuring franchise’s Bathsheba and Valak. Hereditary is punctuated with powerful imagery also destined for iconography: The miniature houses, the treehouse (itself a miniature), the dolls constructed from knick-knacks and dead animals, and a sketchbook filled with scrawlings both innocent and ghostly are just a few examples.
Hereditary isn’t a date movie—or a movie for anyone looking for uninterrupted sleep and/or a mind free from unshakable depression. Even I felt pushed close to my limit, and, unlike most movies, my recall remains crystalized (a testament to the film’s ability to impact its audience, like an imprint of actual trauma). Still, I already know I’ll revisit Hereditary again—and again. The film has transformed me, and whether its influence will be overt or subtle, the horror genre will never be the same. A new gauntlet has been cast.
Hereditary is the movie horror fans have been begging for. The irony, of course, is that many genre fans won’t be able to handle it. Be careful what you ask for because this movie will change you.