Being a fan of horror can often be disappointing. Many films of the genre lack substance and fall victim to cliché – the haunted house, the masked man, the possession. ‘Hereditary’ brings something new to the table and shows us how truly horrifying horror can be, when it dares.
‘Hereditary’, writer-director Ari Aster’s first film, is an offering to the new wave of intelligent horror, including ‘Get Out’ and ‘The Witch’, that rely on tension and relatable fear. Aster creates his own tense atmosphere by borrowing from others – wide shots from ‘The Shining’, paranoia from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, and a sense of stillness from ‘It Follows’. At the centre of the plot is a stereotypical family unit, dealing with the loss of its maternal grandmother. Enhanced grief and fear of bad parenting become the realistic basis for the horror of the film.
Toni Collette delivers a powerhouse performance as the mother, Annie Graham, a renowned artist who creates miniature scenes based on her own life. Annie is a deeply troubled character, who manages to mask her fear and anger behind a need to control things. We see this anger and fear build up throughout the film, eventually spilling through this mask in a horrific, emotional spectacle. She’s an unreliable narrator with questionable mental health. The comparatively laidback parenting approach of her husband Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne, serves to further highlight her potential insanity.
Alex Woolf, who plays the teenage son Peter, is equally struggling with family life. He and his mother have a particularly tumultuous relationship; even their typical parent-teenager argument scenes are breath-haltingly tense.
Milly Shapiro appears in her first film role, as the youngest child, Charlie. Shapiro brings an intensity to the character that makes you simultaneously sympathise with her and fear her. As Joan, Ann Dowd completes the cast of multifaceted female characters. Her role is relatively small but vital, and her arrival coincides with key events in the Graham family’s demise.
Although it has been described as the scariest film of the year, I disagree. It has pacing issues. The first two-thirds of the film focus so heavily on family dynamics that, in the final act, Aster seems to throw everything horrific at the wall in the hope that something will stick. It goes from unsettling and paranoid to very disturbing and gory, but it fails to flip seamlessly between drama and horror. That being said, it is horrifying, and I saw things that can never be unseen. Calling it just a horror film is a disservice, it’s a deeply unsettling character-driven drama that will rock you to your very core.