Hereditary review: The singularly most terrifying horror film in years

A film not here to play back your own worst nightmare in front of your eyes, but to render a feature-length iteration of the paranormal experience

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 14 June 2018 17:06 BST
Hereditary review with Clarisse Loughrey and Jack Shepherd

Where does horror draw itself from? Does it dig into the deepest, darkest recesses of our nightmare realms - only to drag it into shuddering reality? Or does it seek to capture the chill that trickles down the body when we see, hear, or feel something that makes us question: has something crossed from one plane of existence into ours?

Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary brings forth those murky questions. Perhaps, in the end, it’s all the same kettle of demons, but there’s something to Aster’s approach that seems to strike a different chord to its brethren horror sensations of late.

The film made a major splash at its Sundance Film Festival debut, yet the fact Hereditary is being (rightly) talked of as one of the most singularly terrifying, singularly disturbing horror films in years speaks to its unique sense of mood.

The film’s setup is, admittedly, conventional, as its central family unit is immediately faced with loss: Annie (Toni Collette)’s mother has passed away from cancer, with the effects rattling the domestic harmony between her and her placid husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and two children - sullen teen Peter (Alex Wolff) and mildly sinister Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the latter possessing a horror genre-primed impulse to craft toys out of morbid materials.

Yet, Hereditary isn’t here to play back your own worst nightmare in front of your eyes, but to render a feature-length iteration of the paranormal experience. That deeply specific sensation that not only liberally intermixes dread and terror, but an uneasy sense of uncertainty. Of hesitation.

This is a film that takes sinister delight in playing games with our own perceptions: what’s that in the corner of the room? A coat folded over a chair? Or something we dare not even imagine? And so, for much of its running time, the film’s supernatural elements are surprisingly low stakes.

But all the more effective for it, as a chance meeting between Annie and recently-converted spiritualist Joan (Ann Dowd) convenes in a séance that stays unnervingly faithful to the quiet, hovering expectations which bother the mind as one calls out to the darkness: “Are there any spirits present with us?”

Trailer for Hereditary

However, by no means does Hereditary so willingly sedate itself for its entire run. And when its full terrors are unleashed, the result can almost feel like too much to bear.

Aster’s sense of precedence carefully curates some of the most effective tricks of horror’s past greats: the wide-angle shots that shape Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a dash of the paranoia which wracks Rosemary’s Baby, and - to dial things forward in time - the sense of stillness that haunts It Follows. All coupled with a score by Colin Stetson that’s erratic, unnerving in its very construction, long before it’s been paired with any onscreen revelations.

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It understands, too, how the careful manipulation of tension can render the singular, largely unassuming image into a shot of pure terror: in the tradition of Mulholland Drive’s infamous diner scene, and its figure in wait around the corner, or The Shining’s interrupted man in a bear costume.

Guts and gore aren’t the only things that can terrify us, not when horror can dig so deep into the subconscious its horrors become largely indecipherable. Why exactly are these things so frightening?

Hereditary does offer less of the clean-cut metaphoric flair that a film like The Babadook chases after, since its ghosts don’t exactly function as walking metaphors for depression, grief, or alienation - or a combination of all three. Really, the ghosts are just ghosts; it’s in the characters’ interaction with them that the film’s sense of deep subtext arises.

A complicated depiction of grief, in short. Annie is largely estranged from her mother upon her death, readily admitting at her funeral that she was a “very secretive and private person”. And so, the film’s sense of unease matches Annie’s own.

Hereditary navigates the awful feeling of when guilt and grief intersect: the guilt of feeling like you’ve not grieved enough, or the guilt of feeling like you might be responsible in some way. The ghosts may be just ghosts, but their presence in the family home forces a stark confrontation with those emotions.

Toni Collette’s work as Annie here is gut-wrenching in its own terms, as she’s able to craft a horror that reaches beyond just what goes bump in the night, but that lies at the heart of a woman whose whole family seems to be crumbling before her eyes.

A woman who’s largely incapable of processing her emotions outside of the rare emotional outburst, her fits of sleepwalking, or compressed into her art pieces - miniatures and dollhouses, where every one of her family’s fears and anxieties has become minute and aestheticised. A way to lock them out of mind for as long as possible.

Secrecy, guilt, anguish: Hereditary breeds its own phantoms. Ones which like hang around, to boot. Weeks later, you may step into a dark room, and that chilled feeling will come rushing back: am I truly alone right now?

Hereditary hits UK cinemas 15 June.

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