Hereditary (2018) (Review)

No film has quite gotten under my skin like Hereditary, A24's latest horror that sparked the most intense audience divide since Darren Aronofsky's mother! at the latter end of last year. Endlessly hyped since its Sundance debut six months ago and labelled the new horror masterpiece for a generation, the bar was set extraordinarily high for Ari Aster's feature-length directorial debut.

Hereditary is best enjoyed blind but the trailers suggest that it is the story of a family haunted by the death of their reclusive and secretive grandmother, who may have left something behind with her after she passed on following a long illness. Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd, the supernatural chiller will make your heart race, palms sweat and breathing intensify - all before you've left the first act.

It's hard knowing where to begin dissecting Hereditary: it is a multi-layered, symbolic experience, one seeped in terror and dread from the first frame until the last. Unapologetic in the way it lodges itself under your skin and stays firmly in place long after the credits have rolled, it is a film that you will be unable to shake, for better or worse, with some of the most striking imagery put to film in a good while. It relies brilliantly on atmosphere to induce most of the fear, crafting a nerve-shredding experience, prolonged and suffocating. It leaves you gasping for breath when the lights come on at the end of the screening and you must face the world again.

It takes a good twenty minutes for Hereditary to truly get going, but the build-up is ominous and culminates in one of the most effective, brilliantly-constructed set pieces I've ever seen, a sequence that sends the rest of the film plummeting into the filmmakers' most idealised version of hell. From the minute the party takes a turn for the worse, right up until the trailer's opening bait-and-switch, it is a five-minute sequence I felt genuinely scarred by -- with one particular shot, roadside, permanently seared into my brain. From the use of a protracted silence to the lighting, shot composition and movement, it is one of the most expertly-crafted moments of horror we have witnessed in some time. It's truly incredible.

And the defining, go-down-in-horror-history moments don't end there. Following shortly on from that moment (as in, you're still shaking from that fever nightmare) is a dinner table sequence that single-handedly wins Toni Collette the Oscar for Best Leading Actress next year (in my eyes). You've seen it all over the trailers but until you experience the full wrath of Collette's outburst, you'll never quite appreciate the blistering intensity and astonishing force of her performance.

And then, if that wasn't enough, Hereditary delivers, perhaps, one of the most subtle scares imaginable but one that shook me to my core on the second watch -- I'd completely missed it the first time around. On paper, it may be somewhat of a more conventional moment but its execution is so masterful, so understated but so terrifying that the moment you clock it, your breathing instantly intensifies. It's what horror is made for and I cannot quite explain the moment my eyes met the looming terror.

It would all be well and good having a handful of strong moments peppered across your feature, but Hereditary manages to tie it all together while sustaining the haunting imagery, scintillating atmosphere and aura for much of its duration. While it stutters in tying it up a little at the end, bending over backwards to explain things, it doesn't detract too much from a gut-punching finale that seals the deal; this really is one of the most memorable, and haunting, horror films in years.

Across the board, the ensemble cast is absolutely tremendous; Toni Collette is truly Oscar-worthy but lest we forget Alex Wolff, who dials in a performance so brilliantly balanced and rendered that he deserves a place in the Supporting Actor discussion -- he's my number one pick of the year so far. Along with newcomer Milly Shapiro (who registers a suitably creepy and disconcerting turn as the youngest of the Graham family) Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd, Hereditary is anchored by the strong, committed turns from everyone in front of the camera.

Perhaps smarter than you initially realise, Hereditary's script is a brilliant exploration of mental health, PTSD, the family dynamic and inheritance. It plants seeds early on, sits back and watches gleefully as they mutate into hellish nightmares in an increasingly disturbing, haunting manner. While a few more genre tropes and conventions are being utilised than you'd perhaps like - particularly in the final third - it does not diminish the effectiveness of their execution. It twists a handful of them on their head which is all part of the suspense. Aster packs a family drama and delirious horror into the same package and it's terrific to experience.

Aster is just as strong behind the lens too, with the first-time director demonstrating unbelievable talent and skill in his first major studio venture; the use of deep focus is inspired, creating an almost artificial world that feeds brilliantly into the film's central conceit -- "they're all pawns in this horrible, hopeless machine", one indistinguishable character remarks. How very apt. The dollhouse aesthetics are brilliantly bold, vivid and slick, enhanced through some very impressive production design and Pawel Pogorzelski's striking cinematography.

Without meaning to oversell it too much, Hereditary is a film best seen to be believed. Comparisons to The Exorcist aren't all that helpful and while there are slithers of inspiration to be found in the supernatural elements of the plot, a more appropriate likeness would be to A24's own The VVitch in its slow-burn pacing; The Babadook in its exploration of mental illness; the 'Greek tragedy in modern America' angle of The Killing of a Sacred Deer; and the feverish paranoia and vehemence of mother! and Rosemary's Baby. And that's just scratching the surface. It's not created to completely transform the genre but it does revigorate: I cannot remember leaving a horror film this scared in a long, long time. It's terrifying at times, haunting always and one of the century's best, most effective, twisted and distressing horror films to reach our screens.


Summary: Sweaty palms, increased heart rate and heavy breathing. It's Hereditary: Ari Aster and A24's new horror film that is so scarring, haunting and nightmarish that its images will be seared on to your brain long after the credits have rolled. Toni Collette and Alex Wolff chill in one of the century's best horror films.