Hereditary is a marvellously acted family drama that also happens to be the scariest horror movie I’ve seen in ages. Unfortunately, the two genres never quite gel, and I left the theatre feeling more puzzled than shaken.
The film begins with an obituary; Annie Graham, a mother of two, has just lost her own mother. She attends the funeral with her husband and children, and delivers a eulogy which reveals that she and her mother were not particularly close. After the service the family returns home and everyday life resumes. Annie is an artist who works in miniatures, creating perfect replicas of scenes from her own life. Her son, Peter, is a fairly typical teenager, who smokes weed between classes, and is mainly concerned with working up the courage to talk to the girl who sits in front of him in English. Annie’s daughter, Charlie, is a different story. She has no friends, sleeps in a treehouse outside, and makes creepy dolls out of wire and bird heads. All of this is fairly standard horror fair, but where it goes is anything but. I’m not going to spoil what transpires, because watching this movie ramp up, and having no idea where it’s all going is the primary reason to see Hereditary.
As mentioned before, the acting is almost uniformly excellent, with the brilliant Toni Collette being the high water mark, and the just-OK Gabriel Byrne being the low. Toni Collette, who is no stranger to playing stressed out matriarchs (see The Sixth Sense, About a Boy, or Little Miss Sunshine), gives what may be her best performance. A moment that stuck out for me was a look she gives her son after he compliments his dad (Byrne) on the dinner he made; it tells us more about the resentment and frustration she feels towards Peter than dialogue ever could. Peter is played by Alex Wolff, and he has a scene early on that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. Milly Shapiro generates real pathos for Charlie, and finds the humanity in even her weirdest moments.
The first half of of Hereditary is a full on masterpiece that beautifully explores the horror of the everyday – family tensions, grief, and nut allergies (seriously, nut allergies are TERRIFYING). The second half is undeniably scary, but it leans too heavily on genre tropes, and writer/director Ari Aster never quite finds a way to fully integrate the scares into the story. Without spoiling anything, the film essentially changes genre twice. The first time it works, because it’s building on characters and family dynamics. This first shift starts to introduce more conventional horror setpieces, which are quite good, but a bit disappointing considering how truly shattering the first half of the film is. The second genre shift is considerably less effective – it essentially reduces everything that came before to a breadcrumb trail, and for a movie that starts with such a wide scope, it ties everything up in a depressingly neat bow. Character arcs fizzle, the scares become more and more cliche, and I couldn’t help noticing it all bears more than a few distinct similarities to a certain recent horror film that did the same thing, only better.
I would absolutely recommend Hereditary to horror fans; even at its worst it’s still damn good, and that first half is one for the ages. Perhaps another viewing will sit better with me, but for now I must confess that my most anticipated horror film of 2018 left me a little cold.