A door that’s locked tight. A mysterious tree house outside the bedroom window. A scribbled word on the wall. A creepy-as-hell little girl.
For most of its runtime, Hereditary pulls bits and pieces from horror movies across the ages to create something gripping and bewildering. In Ari Aster’s hands, writing and directing his first full-length movie, this movie charts an unpredictable course through one family’s experiences with grief and the supernatural. Aster is all-in on the classic horror references, building them into a new patchwork that feels so pleased with misleading us. We are left unmoored, with little to grab on to.
It works; you won’t expect this movie to go where it does. Maybe this is Aster’s tribute to Psycho, to use the founding example of pulling the rug from under us. Hereditary embraces big shifts in tone, combining nightmarish horror tropes with the inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. What held the movie together, for me, was my increased anxiety how all the fractured threads would eventually unite. It’s more loosely structured than the best horror movies — which only makes it more destabilizing.
This is a movie about the horrors we imagine will come. There are slow, deliberate pans through the dark recesses of the family’s spacious home; and the tension never abates because we’re constantly waiting for something, anything, to jump out at us.
Here’s how the movie opens, without any spoilers past the first ten minutes: Annie (Toni Collette)’s mother has passed away. Annie gives a eulogy, where she recognizes how little she knew about her private mother. Soon she throws herself into her art, creating miniature houses (modeled after her own) for a gallery show. The non-horror side of this movie stands on its own; how Annie’s grief affects her and her family is deeply serious to the filmmakers. It’s just that some crazy frightening stuff also happens.
As Annie, Toni Collette is absolutely going for it. Her character can shift from caring to bitter and self-loathing on a dime, and as the story proceeds, we see her wrestle with her history of mental illness with increasing, uncomfortable desperation. Every acting choice she makes is a little extra, especially compared to the rest of her cast. In a lacerating dinner-table monologue, Collette is so delightfully over-the-top that this big cathartic moment also feels a little comical. How far can we go to sympathize with this woman? Her character subverts the ways we usually see women in horror movies; often they are more young and naive, or mothers determined to do the right thing. Annie is definitely no Rosemary.
All this is to say, you should watch this with as little advance information as possible. I’m curious if the movie holds up on a second viewing. There’s the chance that everything will seem less random. On the same token, Aster’s many horror-classic influences would be more telling; the climax is something we’ve seen before, and certainly less shocking than all the depraved things I imagined it might be. The “real” story is ridiculous, in a operatically campy way; the last thirty minutes have “cult classic” written all over them.
It’s a movie that lingers a week later, because it’s so convinced of its own power to mess you up. Whether you buy it or not, it’s a boldly acted, thrillingly shot spectacle. The most satisfying thing about Hereditary is how it charts an emotional journey we can extract from the horror-movie trappings: about the family and life we’re born into, and how little control we have over our ultimate fate.