Film Critic Matt Taylor is left breathless by Hereditary, a modern-day masterpiece of horror filmmaking
Horror is a genre on the up. For years, it seemed to be stuck in a rut of conventional, boring, and non-scary movies that had nothing new to offer. Recently, however, this has changed. The 2010s have seen a resurgence of new and challenging horror movies that have managed to reanimate a near-dead genre. I’m talking about the likes of The Babadook, The Witch, It Comes At Night, It Follows, Get Out, It, A Quiet Place, and Apostle. These films form part of a run of horror film that each manage to do something new and unique, and are so effectively frightening that we can’t help but love them. Having said that, they all pale in comparison to Hereditary. Ari Aster’s directorial debut is genuinely the stuff of nightmares; it is better directed, better acted, generally better made, and far more terrifying than any other twenty-first century horror film I can think of.
On the surface, the plot of Hereditary may seem basic enough. We centre on a suburban American family who, when the grandmother/matriarch dies suddenly, are subject to some strange and unnerving goings-on that start out small enough, but gradually evolve into cataclysmic events with life-changing consequences. If that sounds simple, it’s because it is; Aster doesn’t need a complicated story to terrify us. He’s perfectly good at that on his own.
Aster’s eye for aesthetics all the way through the film is fantastic. We open with a shot that zooms into a model replica of the house belonging to the Grahams, and it’s here that things get started. Straight away, then, we’re given a sense that something isn’t quite right, that something feels off about this entire world. It continues through the rest of the film. The day-to-night and night-to-day transitions focus on the outside of the house, and we can’t ever be sure whether we’re looking at a model or the real thing. The final shot of the film exemplifies this too: Aster cuts back from the room we’re in, but still maintains focus on it, so that we see the room from a wide shot surrounded by empty space. All of this contributes to the film having a sort of doll-house aesthetic, which succeeds in keeping us in suspense even when there’s nothing scary on-screen.
Speaking of those scary things: they are terrifying. They are also few and far between. It is as if we spend most of the film blindfolded. We’re suspicious and uneasy, but we can’t be sure of anything. Then, right before the final act, Aster rips the blindfold off and lets loose a torrent of terror upon us. It’s a bold move, making us wait like that, but is absolutely worth the payoff; the events of the final act are so unimaginably evil and outlandish that we can’t quite believe what we’re seeing. There are hints towards this over the course of the film, but on first viewing these are easily forgotten, and on a second viewing, it’s plain to see how well placed those hints are. There’s an immense amount of craftsmanship and talent in the making of Hereditary – the scares, the cinematography, the characterisation, the script, the score; they’re all superb. One of the best moments in the film has (arguably) nothing to do with the supernatural that looms over the final act. It comes roughly 45 minutes in, and it is a moment of pure character. The sequence is shot and edited perfectly, and our jaws are left on the floor at the sheer balls on this film. It’s a point that shows how deeply rooted in character Hereditary is: Aster has the skill to make us care so much about this family so easily – but it isn’t all down to him.
The performances in Hereditary are pitch perfect. If ever a horror movie is to get an Oscar nomination in the acting categories, it should be this. Toni Collette is the standout of the cast. She plays housewife Annie in a way that is simultaneously emotional and oddly detached. Annie is put through hell over the film’s 2 hours and 7 minutes, and her journey is fascinating to watch. Collette is perfect in the role; everything from her mannerisms to her facial expressions to the pitch of her voice is astounding. She carries many of the film’s most unsettling or traumatic moments with levity and grace, and as a result we buy into the character of Annie so easily – Collette’s reactions upon going through the trauma she does feel real enough to bring tears to your eyes. The rest of the cast are not to be slighted either. Milly Shapiro makes her astonishing debut as 13-year-old Charlie, a loner who’s struggling with grief. Shapiro has these wonderfully blank facial expressions that are able to convey so much with so little, making her simultaneously fascinating and unnerving to see on screen. Alex Wolff plays 16-year-old Peter with an earnestness that makes him feel extremely real. He wants to do the best he can to help his family where possible, but he also wants to smoke pot and sneak out to parties. He’s a good kid who’s just trying to get by, but he’s really struggling, and Wolff conveys this beautifully. Gabriel Byrne plays Annie’s husband Steve, and he is perhaps the most sidelined of the family. We don’t learn anywhere near as much about him as we do the three others, but Byrne’s easygoing performance more than makes up for that. The chemistry between the four of them is so in tune, and we believe them as a family unit with no effort whatsoever.
And this is perhaps Hereditary’s greatest strength: that, despite being aesthetically genius and the scariest horror movie in years, it feels incredibly human. When things go sideways for the Grahams we realise that we really do care, and not in the way we usually would with good horror movies. We care about them on a much deeper, much more human level. So much thought and craft has gone into the making of this film, and it shows. Hereditary is that extremely rare horror movie that haunts your waking moments as well as your sleeping ones, but one that is overflowing with sheer humanity. Ari Aster gives us a masterclass in how to make a horror movie, and terrifies us like no other modern filmmaker has in decades.
Verdict: Hereditary is a triumph of horror filmmaking. Unnerving in its quieter moments and downright terrifying in its louder ones, it finds the perfect balance between horror and human, and in this balance lies the scariest and best horror film of the twenty-first century. A hands-down, bonafide, certifiable masterpiece.