Oh, where to begin. As with the film It Follows (mentioned here), Hereditary was yet again one of those films which slipped into the festival circuit and clearly took all who encountered it unawares, prompting them to declare it The Next Big Thing in Horror, even having the cojones to compare it to mine and British film critic Mark Kermode’s cinematic holy grail, The Exorcist. I recently found out via Kermode’s YouTube channel Kermode Uncut that he and I had a similar experience with the film, first delving into the novel by William Peter Blatty (this being many years after the world had already taken this path, albeit without the gift of hindsight) after first being denied viewing it, ultimately delivering a more informed and highly anticipated experience once the film itself was finally seen. He regards the film as a perfect specimen of cinema, and I am inclined to agree with him. Both Blatty and director William Friedkin set the bar so high in 1973 that a handful of films could deign tread upon its coattails. While not necessarily on the same level, Hereditary is damn close behind.
Oh, Ari Aster. You delightful complete nutjob of a filmmaker. Even with your early short films, particularly The Strange Thing About the Johnsons and Munchausen (both of which are available to view on YouTube), you clearly had it in for the whole family dynamic. Leave it to Aster to take that place where we all feel most safe, supported and free to be who we really are, and turn it into a violent and caustic minefield of harrowing fear and trepidation. I wholly encourage anyone who has not seen Hereditary to see these shorts before witnessing his first feature film, for thematically it is the latest product of his grim Darwinian urge. Like David Cronenberg and his early obsession with the individual human body as the seat of all evils, Aster sees the cult of familial relationships as a hotbed of festering fears.
The family of lambs for eventual slaughter in this case are the Grahams, with mother Annie (spec-fucking-tacularly portrayed by Toni Collette, who wholly deserves any and all awards thrown in her general direction for her performance), dealing with the emotional debris (yes, I went there) left behind after her own mother’s death, which sets up the tableau for the film. Along for the grisly ride are Gabriel Byrne (who to me will always be that dastardly Nazi bastard Kaempffer in Michael Mann’s The Keep, hopefully more on that one later), as her dutiful psychologist husband Steve, Alex Wolff (who turns in another remarkable performance) as their son Peter, and the adorably disturbing Milly Shapiro, making her film debut as their daughter Charlie. To go any further would be to spoil the proceedings, which I honestly avoided myself before seeing the film (once the initial trailer had more than piqued my interest), but throw in the always-amazing Ann Dowd into the mix, and we’ve got one hell of a capable cast.
Now, how to spew and squeal about this wonderful film without divulging its contents (not that at this point in time a number of videos and articles already have — bad, bad movie nerds). First, a bit of a forewarning is in order. Hereditary is clearly modeled after the “slow burn” films of the late ’60s and early ’70s. This means it hasn’t leaped into the current fashion of horror films, which typically begin with hinting at the Damned Thing that lies at the center of the story before chucking in the handful of its future fodder for a series of quirky “character moments” before meeting an inevitable demise. As I mentioned above, the family itself is at peril in this film, and Aster first gives us a good deal of time to get to know them all (not to mention subtly clue us into how they may be fodder-ized later on), as well as painting a lovely patina of intangible dread over the proceedings. The difference is not unlike the immediate burger and fries from your typical fast-food restaurant as opposed to the staging of courses in finer dining. We are allowed to sink into the Graham’s particular kind of misery and wholly identify with them in the process — not unlike the compared The Exorcist, where we first get to know the rosy-cheeked and innocent Regan McNeil before her descent into the bowels of deviltry. But, again, as mentioned above, the Grahams are not so innocent, and in fact are generationally the products of familial ills that have become the dark mechanisms of their current existence, which truly adds a great deal of kindling to a fire which takes to blazing glory by Hereditary‘s finale.
Another important point about the appreciation of this film is something that has been brought up in reviews, even the one by the aforementioned Mr. Kermode. While I also am pressed to acknowledge it as a weakness (not necessarily a flaw, since I don’t think it’s fair to make a criticism without providing an alternative that would benefit the argument — and like I’ve mentioned on this blog, I have intentionally removed myself from being a film “reviewer” into the role of a film “appreciator”, since movies like all forms of art are truly subjective). The point is that Hereditary is a film with two distinct halves. Without spoilering the plot, let me say that the film escalates in intensity considerably in its second half (if I had to be more precise, it’s really the end of its second act and the entirety of the third) and the underpinning required to provide a smooth transition to it from the beginning is less than would be expected. I know this is incredibly vague, but bear with me. Many have made the criticism that the events of the second half of the film were unnecessary, and that the film would be all the better for it. While I personally do not agree, I can certainly see why this has often been brought up. But as I said above, I honestly don’t know how Aster could’ve lashed together a stronger bridge between the former and latter ends of the film (that is, without obvious exposition which he tries to avoid, for the most part), so I cannot join in on this as a valid criticism. The truth is he leaves several subtle clues (well, some not so subtle) and does what he can to resolve the issue within the thematic framework of what he has constructed. Like the best of films, Hereditary bears up considerably upon repeat viewings (although so far, I have only seen it twice), and most of these clues are more apparent upon returning to them. One could relate this and the above-mentioned pace of the film as the result of this being Aster’s first stab at a feature film runtime, but I could not blame him for choices he has made. Overall, Hereditary is an absolutely enthralling experience, for those able to be patient and open-minded enough to allow its pace and accept its weaker points.
Now, for the fun part. Hereditary is a tour-de-force of unrelenting emotion, disturbing visuals (all of which amazingly captured by cinematographer Pawel Pogozelski), and superb sound design, spurred on Colin Stenson’s wonderfully weird and amorphous score. Aster, unlike the majority of filmmakers working in the genre, seems to truly grasp what horror is all about — creating a genuine sense of dread where almost anything could occur, all of it with impact (and without the use of jump-scares or blaring musical stings) and guaranteed to make even the most dyed-in-the-wool horror fan a quivering mass of exposed nerve endings by its conclusion. There are moments in the film that truly took me surprise, and I admittedly jumped an inch or two out of my chair while watching — a delayed jump-scare, if you will. The aforementioned revelatory ending seems to create an eerie calm over the proceedings, and gosh thanks so much Mr. Aster for creeping me the fuck out from now on every time I hear Judy Collins sing Both Sides Now.
To wrap up this monster of a post, I can only say that while it has yet to be seen as any sort of classic or iconic entry in the annals of modern horror cinema, Hereditary has without a doubt made its mark on the current order, and is a great achievement for a first-time feature filmmaker. I loved the two times I’ve gotten to see it and look forward to more, as well as whatever the awesome Ari Aster has in store for us next.