Hereditary took the horror world by storm in early 2018 as the newest in the seemingly endless line of films compared to The Exorcist in terms of sheer fright. Directed by feature-film newbie Ari Aster on a budget of around 10 million and starring well known actress Toni Collette, the film made noise on the festival circuit before being picked up by A24 and released to the eager horror masses wondering if the claims could be true. If you haven’t seen the film at this point, definitely do not read further. This gets spoilery and we would (as always) advise going into things blind. If you have seen it, venture forth, brave traveler and read what we thought or hit the link to our podcast and give it a listen.
Reviewed by: Jake
In a continued effort to make these more bite-sized (you want long, scroll up and take that link to our podcast where we dive DEEP), we’re gonna fly through this thing. Annie (Toni Collette) is the matriarch of a family living in a big-ass home in the mountains. She is an artist who makes miniatures so whatever her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) does for a living, the dude makes bank. Annie and Steve have two kids, Peter (Alex Wolfe) and Charlie (Millie Shapiro). We begin the film at the funeral of Annie’s mother, who was apparently pretty secretive and into some weird shit.
Shortly after the funeral, some unsettling signs start to appear. Annie thinks she sees her mother’s ghost in the shadows of the home, her daughter Charlie starts acting weird, and Steve receives a call that grandma’s grave was desecrated. In an effort to deal with the grief, Annie attends a support group where she reveals her family has a history of mental illness. She tries to make things better by encouraging a return to normalcy. She sends Charlie to a party with Peter where he goes to smoke a bowl while she eats cake that contains nuts, sending her into anaphylactic shock. Peter rushes her towards home but in a freak accident little Charlie is decapitated by a telephone pole.
Shit gets worse. Annie spirals into a depression, Peter is riddled with guilt and begins to think he is haunted, and Steve makes dinner a lot or something. Annie keeps going to support groups and meets a woman who convinces her she is a medium and can help her communicate with Charlie. Annie goes further off the rails, but not without some objectively spooky shit happening, convincing Peter he is on the shortlist for a vengeful spirit. As time passes and the family grows more wary, Annie discovers more about her mother’s past and her dealings in the occult. She also discovers the woman she had been spending time with is also involved. Soon thereafter she discovers her mother’s decapitated corpse in the home’s attic, and when she and Steve try to burn Charlie’s doodle pad they think is some sort of haunted vessel to the living world, Steve is engulfed in flames while Annie is possessed. Peter is chased through the house by Annie and tries to run to the attic where he encountered nude, powdered-up cultists. Annie emerges from the rafters and cuts her own head of with a piano wire while Peter dives out the window to try to escape the madness. He then notices a light in the treehouse and follows it to discover a shrine and a ton of the cultists. They place a crown on his head. He is the coming of Paimon.
What the Movie Does Right
In short, this movie does almost everything right. For this to be a feature-film debut for director Ari Aster is unfair and it makes you really wonder why you even exist. Dude’s got chops. I mean, the very first scene is incredible and trippy and it’s just a drop in the bucket of amazing shots in the movie. There has to be a massive shoutout here to the cinematography which was handled by Pawel Pogorzelski, too. What a tag team. Don’t play them at beer pong.
To go a bit deeper on the overall quality of directing and look of the film is to open a can of really interesting worms because there is so much to discuss, but some of the standouts to me were the ways in which long takes were combined with the use of shadow, which allows for some of the better scares in the film to occur. There are numerous scenes in this movie where things are happening front and center while something terrifying lies just beyond. Some of these instances are so subtle that they are easy to miss but the scenes are unsettling nonetheless AND there is the extra value you are bound to get from repeated viewing. There’s also an astonishingly good use of the family home as a place in this film. It’s so large and foreboding that it’s pretty much a character. In fact, it’s so impressive that it manages to make Gabriel Byrne’s character more interesting because you're left wondering what the fuck he does for a living in order to facilitate this stupid level of excess. Final point on this topic is an interesting use of color throughout the film. From the yellows of the funeral scene to the greens of the forest around the home in spring, to the blues of almost any scene involving Peter, there’s a visual language here that will take a smarter reviewer than this guy to explain with any success.
Let’s shift gears and talk Toni Collette. She rocks it. She rocks it hard. This is a tour de force performance in a film where she is asked to do an incredible amount, and it could very easily have come off the rails but Annie’s shift from grief to fatigue to borderline insanity to straight up possessed has so much quality that I can’t even describe it here. You’ve just gotta see it. She should be nominated for an Oscar for this. She’s done it before in genre film with her performance in the Sixth Sense but I think this will be a harder sell for the academy. Let’s see how well this post ages, shall we?..
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that scene. You know the one. The one where they off the youngest kid in the first third of the movie after doing some legwork to make you think she’s either going to be a main protagonist or villain? The one where they throw her into anaphylactic shock and then crush her little kid skull with a telephone pole? Yeah that one. Wow. They did that, and then they lingered on it for an excruciating amount of time to let the weight sink in, and then they show you the aftermath just to make sure they got both the proverbial right and left testical when they proverbially kicked you in the proverbial nuts. Kudos, Aster and team. That’s a horror scene.
What the Movie Does Wrong
This section is difficult because we’re dealing with a good film, so I’ll nitpick for a split second. Steve’s character was pretty boring and didn’t bring a lot of thunder to the screen, and I’ve seen mixed things on this but I personally didn’t care much for Alex Wolfe’s Peter either because every time he was asked to do something at full blast, either to be emotional or scared, his version of that was overly juvenile and cartoony. Could have been a writing thing but listening to a kid who’s supposed to be a pothead high schooler wail and yelp “mommy” is fucking annoying. Finally, for as much as we all loved the decapitation sequence for Charlie, ain’t no goddamn way that’s happening like that via telephone pole. They could have used a speed limit sign or something and it would have been better. I get they were trying to show the cult symbol and it fits on a slab of wood, but you know where else it fits? almost anywhere is where.
Story: 7 - This story manages to escape the basic cults will be cults thing simultaneous with managing to escape the house is haunted thing, but the general beats here are not out of the ordinary. It’s above average in its conceit because it manages to do quite a few things at once, but at its core, this is still a movie about a cult the return of a demonic king. The main area it breaks free is the subversion of expectations that is the Charlie storyline and how the film handles her death because wow.
World-Building / Immersion: 8 - this is a fairly long movie that does not get too tiresome because it manages to build an interesting world that is the isolated grief-bomb of Annie’s existence. It gets so much worse, and that only pulls you in more. There are moments that certainly pull you out (telephone pole, Peter as a human being) but it’s an easy one to stay in tune with throughout.
Scare-Factor: 7.5- There is a lot to appreciate in the overt scares in Hereditary but this isn’t a movie that is dead set on scaring your pants off either. I think it really makes its hay in the lingering scenes that lean on some amazing shots and cinematography. Is it the scariest movie since the Exorcist? Stupid fucking exercise because that depends on what you think of the Exorcist, doesn’t it?
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 9 - This movie looks amazing and sounds great. Could it be even better? Yes, it could. There are scenes where I wasn’t hit quite right (didn’t love the choice for Annie’s demonic movement) but that's subjective and this thing is technically sound. Not gonna go all they way to 10 here but I wouldn’t hate to see someone make that argument.
Overall: 8 - This is a great film that should be seen. If you don’t have it in a yearly rotation already, I’d recommend adding because it gets better with repeated viewings. This score could easily be higher and may grow with time.