I can’t remember the last time a horror film scared the bejesus out of me but Hereditary does on multiple occasions after two nerve-rackingly tense acts — it’s just that good. Surprisingly, it’s also the feature-length film debut for independent filmmaker and writer Ari Aster, who here directs his first film like Mike Tyson knocking out Trevor Berbick in his first fight.
Interestingly enough, for much of its running time, Hereditary feels like an earnest character study on mental illness. In the beginning, we learn that a tragedy has struck the Graham family — except, well, some of them don’t consider it to be much of a tragedy. Their matriarch, Ellen, has passed away at a ripe old age, and this to the apathy of her daughter Annie (Toni Collette) who expresses surprise in her eulogy at the number of people attending the funeral. Her mother wasn’t particularly likable, suffering from numerous mental health issues that affected her family, and wasn’t seemingly social either.
Aside from Annie, who is central to this tale, we are introduced to her husband Steve (Gabriel Bryne) — a psychiatrist and something of a rock in the midst of the wild emotionally draining issues around him — Peter (Alex Wolff) her 16-year-old son who also suffers from mental health issues and copes with the family chaos and tragedy by frequently smoking up, and finally Charlie (Milly Spairo), an eccentric 13-year-old daughter who steals every scene she is in by being an especially odd little bird.
Hereditary is among the scariest and most well done horror film in ages
Somewhere between the first and second act, however, something happens in Hereditary that completely shocks the senses and will be talked about by viewers for years. If you haven’t seen the film yet, I urge you to avoid all spoilers and just watch it. For those of you who have seen it, yes I am talking about that scene. Admittedly, I laughed out loud as did some others at the cinema. I am not sure why, perhaps it was seeing how utterly fragile life can be, going from seemingly normal to complete tragedy in the snap of a finger, or perhaps the visual was deliberately served with a side of dark humour by Ari Aster ala Evil Dead.
The first twist flows nicely with the film’s engrossing examination of a family coping with psychological challenges but, in the final act, another twist is introduced that completely changes the direction of Hereditary to pure horror. Of course, I’m not going to spoil things for anyone, but I am going to admit that this second twist left me somewhat disappointed, for it degenerated the more elegant plot into a by-the-numbers genre picture seemingly randomly. Except when I gave it some thought, I realised the change in direction wasn’t random at all and had been almost poetically woven into the initial acts.
Somewhere between the first and second act, however, something happens in Hereditary that completely shocks the senses and will be talked about by viewers for years. If you haven’t seen the film yet, I urge you to avoid all spoilers and just watch it. For those of you who have seen it, yes I am talking about that scene.
All of the seemingly aimless plot points slowly began to make sense. From Annie surprised at how many people knew her mother at the funeral, to Charlie decapitating a dead bird, to the particulars of that scene, to Annie subconsciously wanting to burn her children alive, to Charlie repeatedly being told that she should have been a boy, to all the moments you could have sworn you saw flowing light, Hereditary begs a repeated viewing for its finale to feel less derivative. But regardless of how you feel about the way Hereditary finishes, you will be positively spooked by its scares and Ari Aster’s penchant for spine-chilling imagery, some of which was clearly inspired by the classics.
Elevating Hereditary are the fantastic performances. Two of the best are by young Milly Spairo, who is apparently also a good singer and clearly a star in the making, and Toni Collette, who delivers the performance of her career. It’s not often that you see the battle between sanity and reason written so unsettlingly on someone’s face as the star of this film.
Rated R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity
Published in Dawn, ICON, September 2nd, 2018