‘Hereditary’ is unsettling, terrifying, and brutal. Ever since its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the buzz around the movie has been that it’s the title to beat for best horror film of 2018. Though we’re months away from bestowing that award, ‘Hereditary’ somehow manages to live up to the hype, and perhaps even exceeds it.
The plot begins with a funeral. Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother has passed away and she’s getting the family ready to attend the services. Teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) doesn’t seem to be too troubled by the loss, and dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne) just goes through the motions. Daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) seems the most affected by the death. She’s acting oddly, and this behavior isn’t isolated to times of grieving. Charlie is not like other kids.
Possibly more important than the beginning of the plot is the visual introduction to the world of the film. Annie is an artist who works in miniatures and makes a living creating dioramas of everyday life scenes. When the movie first opens, we see a workshop filled with her creations, settling on one single bedroom within a tiny house. In this room, we see Steve waking Peter and giving him the suit to wear to his grandmother’s funeral. This establishes that the film will not be as easy to interpret as other horror movies you may come across. It will have layers, and different versions of the truth to look at from various angles.
‘Heredity’ has much to unpack and is messy at times. That’s not to say that the mess is unintentional, or disorganized. It has more planes of horror and drama than in a less nuanced horror film. The movie doesn’t pose the question of whether Annie is sane or insane. Or if séances are real or not. Or if we’re asleep or awake. Or if what’s happening is real or imagined. All of these possibilities exist and are all muddled together, rather than being presented as an either/or dichotomy. ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (to which ‘Hereditary’ owes some of its genetics) questions whether Rosemary is insane or if her life has actually been taken over by a Satanic cult, but those are only two options available. ‘Heredity’ not only presents many more options, but each factor is linked to another. Insomnia and sanity are intertwined, as are symbolism and free will. The interdependency of these multiple facets makes the terror in ‘Hereditary’ run throughout the history of the family and the entire fabric of their lives.
In addition to this deft manipulation of fear are some of the most brutal and traumatizing kill scenes I have seen on screen for years. One in particular (and you’ll know it when you see it) sucked all of the air out of my lungs and left me nearly gasping for air. Director Ari Aster should be commended for his cinematic bravery in showing such brutality and cruelty without meanness or hesitation. None of these acts of horror are spiteful or gleeful. They’re instead shown with the weight and tragedy appropriate for the volume of loss.
‘Hereditary’ is best watched with little information about what you’re going to see. The element of surprise is anticipated and exploited to the best of its cinematic abilities. Those going in with expectations of a neatly organized, linear, traditional horror film may not find what they’re looking for. But for those who understand that the best horror can get a little messy, this might earn the top prize of the year.