It starts with an obituary. From there, right up until the final fade out, there’s a feeling of death and despair that permeates practically every frame of the two hour plus film. You can’t shake it off. And neither can Annie Graham (Toni Collette).
In the new supernatural horror film Hereditary, written and directed by Ari Aster, his first, Annie’s mother, Ellen has passed away. From what we learn, when alive, Ellen was not the easiest person to read. “She was also extremely stubborn,” Annie explains, “Which helps explain me.”
Annie and her family, husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), pothead teenage son Peter (Alex Wolf), and the youngest, daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) live in a genuinely wonderful looking wood beamed home, one full of room-dividing doorways that appears lost, buried in a mountainous terrain that in reality is just a short drive from town and the rest of civilization, but feels isolated enough to seem as if there is no one else in the world. And now it’s haunted.
The one that appears initially the most disturbed is the thirteen-year old daughter. A young girl with an adult face, Charlie might be seeing things. It’s difficult to tell. It’s only when mom insists that her daughter accompanies her brother to a high-school party that Hereditary‘s story-telling gears shift. Something calamitous occurs during and after the party, an event that changes the course of everything. Annie has already started to attend a series of meetings intended to help those who have recently lost of loved one, but a second tragedy is too much to bear.
From there, ghostly sightings in the house become a regular occurrence. Mom’s insistance on a family seance doesn’t end well. Plus, there’s something lurking in the shadows, but gone once the lights are turned on. And discovering that grandma’s grave has been vandalized just a week after the burial doesn’t help.
Hereditary is a slow-burn, a horror for adults only that relies not on those ‘boo’ moments, the kind that has teenage audiences reveling in a series of jump-scares, but a film that, through discoveries and slow reveals, stretches a disturbing atmosphere to the point where you can stand it no more. It’s conclusion is horrific, genuinely horrific. And it’s horrific in a way fans of the genre, and those old enough to appreciate it, rarely get to see.
Several of the conventions are there. There’s the attic that you hope no one enters. A dream sequence that you think is over, only to discover that it’s a dream within a dream. A séance where the unexplained occurs, yet dad annoyingly dismisses the evidence of his eyes. Plus, because Annie is a sleepwalker, there are times when you’re not quite sure that what you’re seeing is real or part of her mounting, disturbed imagination. The resulting effect is a malevolent atmosphere that is practically tangible. When teenage son Peter, sitting at his desk in the classroom, sees his reflection in the glass of a nearby bookcase and it smiles back at him, the moment chills. The coldness that must run down Peter’s spine in that classroom is experienced not just by the boy, but also by us. And the climax, once we finally get there, is thoroughly disturbing. It ventures into the supernaturally fantastic. But by that point, audiences are well prepped to expect just about anything.
By the film’s conclusion, what you should remember the most is not so much the chilling sight of the grinning ghouls hidden in the shadows of the house, or what occurs during the final moments up in the treehouse, but the performance of Toni Collette. Her introductory monologue at the Losing A Loved One meeting as she presents herself to the group and explains why she’s there, beginning with, “I have a lot of resistance to things like this,” is riveting. But it’s that anguished howl of horror and despair she exhibits upon the discovery of the death of loved one you’ll remember the most. It comes like an unbearable, searing pain, one that burns into you as though your flesh had just sizzled at the end of a red-hot branding iron. Like the film itself, it may be the stuff of nightmares, but it reaches out and stays with you into the waking world.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 127 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)