The opening shots of Hereditary, the debut feature film from writer/director Ari Aster, slowly bring focus onto a meticulously-designed diorama of the house where we’ll spend most of the next two hours. As the camera zooms in on a bedroom, it imperceptibly changes into the actual bedroom, the plastic doll in bed becoming a flesh-and-blood human. Or does it? It’s an apt if unintentional metaphor for a film that in all ways resembles a masterfully-constructed horror film but doesn’t always come to life.
Said diorama was designed by artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette), who at the start of the film is giving a eulogy at the funeral of her mother Ellen. Ellen was a secretive, cruel woman, and Annie doesn’t seem too upset over the loss. Similarly unfazed are her long-suffering husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and sullen teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff). The only person truly in mourning seems to be Annie’s young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who had a disturbingly close relationship with Ellen. Shortly after the funeral, however, the tragedies in the Graham household begin piling up, and Annie discovers that her mother may have hidden truly terrible things from her in the past that are affecting the family in the present.
WARNING! REVIEW MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
Hereditary comes from A24, the production company that specializes in genre films for people who look down on genre films. It’s two most notable horror productions, The VVItch and It Comes At Night, were tense family dramas with horror elements thrown on top but marketed as straight-up horror films. Similarly, Hereditary isn’t the next Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby, no matter how much A24’s hype machine wants to you believe it. It’s a…drum roll please…tense family drama with horror elements thrown on top.
And like both those films, it succeeds better as a family drama than it does as a horror film. The first half of Hereditary, in fact, has almost no horror elements to it at all aside from the fleeting image of a ghost and a particularly grisly and shocking accident. In the former case, it could be written off as the hallucination of someone in grief, and in the latter case, it’s a tragedy more than it is a horror. The scariest part of the first two acts is watching the family — mostly Annie — completely break down in the aftermath of the events they’ve had to endure.
It’s during these times that the film becomes magnetic, thanks to Toni Collette’s remarkably dedicated and uncaged performance. As Annie attends grief therapy, we find out that mental illness runs in the family, and there’s a hypnotic “is she or is she not crazy?” vibe to Collette’s portrayal. As Annie continues to straddle that line and we discover the full extent of how truly damaged she is, the tension continuously mounts. Annie becomes the film’s protagonist and antagonist in equal measures, with every moment of sympathy counterbalanced with a moment of ugliness.
Since so much of the film is built upon the crumbling family dynamics, especially on how Ellen’s behavior affected Annie which in turn is wreaking havoc on Annie’s own family, it becomes especially disappointing when the supernatural horror elements begin to pile on around the end of the second act. Frankly, it’s almost impossible for the Conjuring-lite moments that Aster stages to be anywhere near as harrowing or raw as Annie’s prolonged mental breakdown. A simple family dinner that descends into an explosion of blame and accusation is far scarier than a demonic shadow floating in the corner of the room.
Which is not to say that the supernatural element is entirely unwelcome. Aster stages his film beautifully, with a masterful command of framing and sound design, ably assisted by Colin Stetson’s brilliantly unsettling and otherworldly score. But the switch from mundane to magical horror comes very abruptly, and it causes you to question everything that came before it…not always in the good way. In many ways, the film is far more effective when the supernatural forces at work are left in the background and nebulous, causing the audience to wonder if they truly exist or if it’s all in Annie’s head.
Aster should be given credit, however, for subverting our expectations when it comes to what a horror film should be. Unlike It Comes At Night, which never escaped its “too good for horror” attitude, Hereditary is genuinely trying to redefine what a horror film should be (even if it doesn’t always succeed). The film’s first hour, where we get to know the family intimately, is something most horror films would do in 15 minutes before piling on the hauntings and possessions in earnest. Aster instead takes his time getting there. The first act tragedy is genuinely jolting and paralyzing because of how unexpected it is given the time we spent on building characters, so much so that almost nothing Aster does after comes close to its impact.
Aster is very stingy with the horror parts of his ostensible horror film until the final act, however, and it’s this that ultimately neuters the film. The pile-on of occult and horror tropes in the last 45 minutes starts to become ridiculous and even laughable at times, with many revelations coming seemingly out of nowhere. (Or patently obvious if you’re a student of real-world occultism.) Much like the balls-to-the-wall insanity of the final act of mother!, the film barrels toward a ludicrous, confusing conclusion that bears almost no resemblance to the relatively-grounded, engrossing family drama that came before it. It goes from art film to occult exploitation so quickly and suddenly that it seems like spacetime has been warped.
The thing keeping the film grounded is its main cast, who are all a uniformly welcome presence. Collette gives a truly award-worthy performance, and Gabriel Byrne’s earthiness and rationality is a fine counterpoint to her escalating, disturbingly raw energy. Alex Wolff similarly evolves over the course of the film, with Peter being one of the most realistic teenagers to grace a horror film in ages. The most striking turn, however, is Milly Shapiro’s pointedly detached turn as Charlie. Charlie herself is an unusual figure, a young woman with a child’s face, prone to cutting the heads off of dead pigeons and tongue-popping at random intervals. Charlie is “girl ain’t right” all over, but Shapiro’s off-putting way of under-playing the role helps stop the character from becoming cliche.
Despite the film’s flaws, Aster is clearly a talented filmmaker working with a fine cast of actors. There’s not much negative that can be said of the film in terms of its crafting. What prevents it from truly breaking out and being the terrifying film it’s billed as is its confused and painfully stretched-out narrative (the film is at least 30 minutes too long, bare minimum). Aster could have made a psyche-destroying drama or a gripping horror film, and there are times the film succeeds as both, but combining the two seems to be just a bit too much for him to handle his first time out of the gate. Hereditary isn’t the next Exorcist, but it’s not a bad start. Maybe the next generation will be a little better.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-