Whenever you read about a new horror movie, and how it should be mentioned in the same breath as Psycho or The Exorcist, if you’re like me, you approach the film with caution. When there’s an outstanding amount of hype surrounding something, expectations can get out of control, and what you finally see is never as good as you imagine. I went into Hereditary relatively blind. I didn’t watch a trailer, I barely skimmed reviews. I knew it was well received out of Sundance, and that it was a horror film with Toni Collette in the lead that was picked up for distribution by A24. That’s all I needed to know. Hereditary is a film best experienced going in blind.
Hereditary is a harrowing drama about a family in crisis. Annie’s extremely secretive mother just died, and the two had a complicated relationship. Her family has been riddled with tragedy for generations. Her children are struggling in their own ways, and her husband is doing all he can to help while remaining the sane voice of reason. A second tragedy occurs within weeks of her mother’s funeral, and the entire family is led down a bleak, desolate path where unspeakably terrifying things begin to happen.
I was shocked to see that this was made by a first-time director. Ari Aster crafts an effectively creepy atmosphere from the first few frames, and the tension does not let up. The film doesn’t exactly become a horror movie until it really reveals itself in the third act. There is a near-constant sense of dread and anxiety from the very beginning, and that’s what makes this a uniquely disturbing experience. A film with so much buildup needs a payoff, but I almost think the film would be even more effective if it hadn’t descended into complete chaos in the end.
Toni Collette is one of the most underrated actresses working today. She consistently does brilliant work, and she gives one of her finest performances here. At many points, I thought that this is Collette doing a theatre performance in a movie. She gives lots of big, brassy dramatic monologues, and really sells it to the back of the house in a way that isn’t common in film. But her performance succeeds most in more quiet moments, such as an early bit at a grief support meeting where she tells a group of strangers about her family’s unusual dynamic. She hesitates at first, her expressive face telling the whole story before she does. What she’s really doing is giving an award-caliber performance in a horror movie.
Running at over two hours, Hereditary is longer than most horror movies, but not a single shot feels wasted. It’s an allegory, but the narrative works on its own. It runs on restrained, white-knuckled tension that begins in the opening frame and never stops. As for comparisons to The Exorcist or Psycho, I wouldn’t say either is exactly right. This is something good enough to coast on its own hype. It’s clearly influenced by movies like Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s its own thing. It’s an unrelentingly haunting depiction of a family in peril. It’s one of the best slow-burn horror films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s best when it’s quiet and forbidding, but don’t let that fool you. This is the stuff of nightmares.