Hereditary’s Roots Run Deep into Horror

Some time ago I happened to be working on a horror film directed by a name filmmaker. The day’s pages concerned a séance in an old house; none of this was interesting at a basic level, of course, because séances are a long-standing trope, but this particular instance was curious because the director demanded a closed set for the scene. A “closed set” means only key crew are allowed during the shoot, usually reserved for sex scenes or nudity and other sensitive material. I admired this director for his earlier work, so I asked someone who was in the room what it was all about. He told me the director wanted to keep the scene honest, that he believed these things were to be taken seriously. This was long before social-media behind-the-scenes campaigns, so there was no reason to doubt the truth of the matter.

I’m not here to talk about that film, but it does point to a key difference in much horror filmmaking. There are good and bad films of all stripes, but one cut can be made between films that are entirely intent on presenting a simulation of horror and films that, as a whole, believe in their material. This is like the difference between someone who is telling a ghost story they’ve heard and someone telling you something they’ve seen and felt. Hereditary is without a doubt a very strong entry into the latter category. Director Ari Aster has crafted a film that is both accomplished filmmaking and profoundly gut-wrenching horror.

Annie and a man on fire

Annie (Toni Collette) hosts her own kind of Burning Man. Photo courtesy of A24

When Annie’s (Toni Collette) estranged mother dies, the days and weeks afterward find her drifting deeper into increasingly disturbing circumstances that suggest that her relief at the mother’s passing was premature. This is familiar terrain for horror films, but Aster artfully draws his characters through these scenes while subtly suggesting something much worse is afoot. Annie’s daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), is seeing things and hearing things, and her art has taken a turn for the morbid. Son Peter (Alex Wolff) starts to have more trouble than usual in high school. Annie herself begins to see things in life and her own art that make her question her mental health. Then something happens. Something happens that will hit you hard and will not let you just look away with a quick edit. Everything goes sideways in the worst way possible, and the filmmakers take us into tighter and tighter spirals of hallucinatory terror, paranoia, and domestic nightmares.

A close-up view of Peter

Peter (Alex Wolff) dreads a future in the family business. Photo courtesy of A24

That’s all I will say this soon after the release of the film. More casual fans of horror may walk out, not expecting what may be a step over the line for what is acceptable in a wide-release film. Those who expect a fairly linear bit of tight terror will also grapple with this movie as it drifts deeper and deeper into its splendid occult visions and delusions. This is art horror, no doubt about that, and it has a cinematic lineage that reaches back to The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Amityville Horror (1979) but also Suspiria (1977). In more recent references, I was happy to see echoes of both The Witch (2015) and The Babadook (2014) in Hereditary’s family themes and distraught performances.

Annie in her studio

Annie practices her “craft.” Photo by Reid Chavis, courtesy of A24

Clearly, no one told Toni Collette that she was cast in a horror film, and that is perfect. She brings to bear all the nuance and emotional range she might bring to a more mundane drama, and this film would fail without it. The same can be said for Gabriel Byrne’s performance as Steve, the dad—he is a man clearly struggling to control the family and be “father knows best” despite being in way over his head from frame one. Milly Shapiro has created a creepy youth in Charlie that will no doubt live on among the ranks of The Exorcist’s Regan (Linda Blair) and The Shining’s twins. Her performance is the spell from which all the demons in this film are released. Alex Wolff had a difficult task for the role of Peter, and it is difficult to praise in depth without drifting into the dreaded spoilers. Suffice it to say his role is that of a dark horse and will no doubt reward a second viewing.

The family at the dinner table

Charlie (Milly Shapiro), Annie (Toni Collette), Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and Peter (Alex Wolff) give new meaning to the term “nuclear family.” Photo by James Minchin, courtesy of A24

This film is also a significant technical achievement, especially considering its very modest $10 million budget. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and production designer Grace Yun have somehow managed to suggest an unreal miniaturization in most of the household sets. This is a genius level of detail that makes the film work on every level. Compositions within the frame are as artful as Annie’s own work, and every part of the mise-en-scène works in terrible synchrony. This is top-level cinema, without a doubt.

Charlie crafting at a small desk

Charlie practices her own arts and crafts. Photo by Reid Chavis, courtesy of A24

I expect there will be plenty of video and written essays created about why the pivotal spoiler scene works as well as it does. I won’t go into it here, but this, too, is a masterful display from editor Lucian Johnston and director Ari Aster. I’ll just suggest the Psycho (1960) shower scene has a new cousin.

Charlie outside

Charlie gathers her materials everywhere. Photo courtesy of A24

This is not a film for everyone; I can say that without any caveats for my own aesthetic predilection. It is more heart-wrenching than most mainstream terror offerings. At times it is more art horror than many seem to allow for (see The Witch), and the delusional homages to Italian horror will no doubt leave the more grounded audience members a bit lost. There are a few plot points that don’t quite connect in a way that is as strong as most of the storytelling, and these can’t be explained as artful flourishes. Sticklers for plot might find this distracting. I should also mention that some of the key points in this film may be triggering for folks, so it may be worth doing some research if you are worried about this.

I can’t say whether Aster had any closed-set séances or personal experience with the dark arts, but Hereditary makes it quite clear that he knows how to craft a film that is savage and deep. This is a tight film that suggests multiple meanings, of course, and none of them are comforting. Whether it is genetic illness or ancient workings, the two-hour run time presents much on the screen that may just put you off your head.

Hereditary promotional poster

A24 Films

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