I’ve seen many reviews stating that Hereditary is a “new kind of horror”, and similar nonsense. In fact, there’s very little new about Ari Aster’s film, but that doesn’t mean that what he does with it won’t creep the living daylights out of you.
Rather, what Aster and co. do is not wholly rely on what have become the standard, tired tricks of a great deal of modern horror: the jump scare of something appearing in frame, or a door slamming, the sudden burst of sound and music. Instead, we are treated to long moments of dread and unease, surrounded by a film which takes its time exploring the emotions of its central characters and wrapping it all in the universal pain of grief – in particular, how we often don’t deal with it. Only once we’re pulled in by all this does Hereditary blow up with reanimated corpses and family members crawling across the ceiling.
And then, of course, it gives us that much talked about ending, which will really test whether or not the film has you in its hooks.
Hereditary begins quietly, pulling a little Stanley Kubrick Overlook maze trick from The Shining with a model house, but doesn’t do so frivolously: it’s a great unsettling moment, revealing one of the movie’s first pieces of disturbing symbolism, teasing us that there’s something not quite right about this family home. More of the film’s themes are immediately set out as we follow the family preparing for a funeral, for the mother of Toni Collette’s Annie.
Soon enough, both Annie and her two children, Peter and Charlie, are sensing things around the house and at school, and we see the family, rounded off by Gabriel Byrnes’ father, Steve, resolutely not coming to grips with not only this death but also events that have occurred in their lives previously.
Tension builds, and Aster, along with editors Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston and committed performances by the cast, allow their film all the time it needs to do so, as we are gradually introduced to wilder events beyond the confines of the house and the family, before one of the truly great shock moments of cinema leads us into a more heightened third act, letting the story fully off the leash in the last fifteen minutes or so. One or two of the final scares and revelations almost threaten to derail the careful build, but by the time they come we’ve been engulfed enough by the family’s deterioration not to stop us from enjoying their obvious pleasures.
It’s difficult to discuss the final five minutes without veering into spoiler territory, but suffice to say the various breadcrumbs laid throughout the previous two hours are brought together in a truly off-kilter way, with an ending which reminded me both of Rosemary’s Baby and of Robert Egger’s modern classic, The Witch, being both truly horrific (as you understand the fates of two of the central characters) and utterly bizarre.
Hereditary allows a few howlers through which occasionally threaten its entry to the hallowed halls of classics such as the aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Haunting: clunky lines of dialogue here and there (“Dad, it’s the cemetery,” “About what?”), the discovery of a book (“Guide to Spiritualism”) which might as well be labelled “plot device”, and some irritatingly, The Deadly Bees level superimposed flies (yes, I’m being nit-picky, but these elements stand out like sore thumbs in an otherwise classy affair like this).
But despite these caveats, Hereditary works like a dark charm because it picks at a sore scab and works at it: grief is something most of us struggle with, and while we may not conjure up dead loved ones in an effort to deal with that grief – or at least, I presume we don’t – we are given time to empathise with the very real and raw emotions experienced by the film’s family, and the unravelling of that family as a result of their inability to deal with their pain. And that’s true horror, after all, even with the addition of a meddling witch’s coven.
To return to my original point, Hereditary might not actually offer us something new, but it does what it does to a mostly masterful level, where the simple sound of a vocal clicking is made scary, and follows the lead of John Carpenter’s Halloween by using the frame to create unease.
And if you’re unfortunate enough to have dealt with death and the ensuing emotions we’re left with, it will resonate long after a dozen pump-up-the-volume, jump scare Paranormal Nun horror movies have faded into one another.