On release, Hereditary was championed as the latest great horror picture, a movie which took a pinch of Rosemary’s Baby, a soupçon of Don’t Look Now, and a healthy dose of slow-burn family deconstruction and brewed it up into a terrifying mixture. Ari Aster’s film is, perhaps, the subject of slight overhype. This is a very accomplished debut feature by Aster, who marks himself out as a filmmaker of note, but Hereditary is not quite on a par with Polanski’s seminal chiller or Roeg’s haunting elegy to grief.
In the twenty-minute featurette which accompanies this release, actress Toni Collette discusses how she wasn’t planning on essaying another intense role until she read Aster’s script, and you can understand why she would want to come aboard. Aster crafts a beguiling, creeping tale at which Collette’s Annie is the centre. Wife to Steve (the under seen Gabriel Byrne) and mother to teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and younger sister Charlie (the unerringly androgynous Milly Shapiro), Annie is haunted by the death of her secretive, unknowable mother and her own flirtations with mental illness which have historically made her scared of her own shadow. Collette grounds the film, therefore, in a necessary mixture of restraint and broiling fury.
Aster’s film is over the two hour mark, which traditional horror pictures these days are less wont to do, but Hereditary cannot be bracketed in the same vein as a standard blood and guts picture. This is pure tense, creeping dread as a family tragedy impacts Annie and her kin, spiralling all of them into an increasingly bizarre turn of events which more than skirt the supernatural. Like many a good chiller, Hereditary is a picture that rewards little advance knowledge. We’re not talking Shyamalan twists and turns as much as a narrative which steadily unfurls to a disturbing revelation and realisation, which Aster quite expertly codes throughout the film with hints, portents, dreams and symbols. You may not guess the denouement but, in its own way, it will make sense.
For a first picture, Aster impresses here. His camera is steady and poised, his direction artful without being ponderous, and the scares are less telegraphed and jump out of your seat as steadily terrifying and almost inevitable. In many respects, Hereditary is more of a character piece – the unravelling of a family unit touched by something they cannot understand, which creeps and infects lives which Aster and his script hint are being carefully manipulated; Annie designs miniatures and Aster’s first, intriguing shot suggests the broader conceptual idea at the heart of the picture. Everything that happens in Hereditary is of a design, that of the director/writer and, indeed, of the forces colliding with the Graham family.
For historic fans of the carefully constructed chiller, Hereditary is an important addition to that canon and one not to miss, even if it lacks the ingenuity and revolutionary impact of the pictures Ari Aster openly admits he was inspired by. It is, absolutely, a genuinely unnerving experience in many places, however, and deserves being discussed among the stronger outings in its genre of recent years.
It’s unfortunate this release is a little scant in terms of extra material. The aforementioned featurette has good insights and we get seventeen minutes of deleted scenes, but Hereditary is screaming for a strong commentary from Aster and those involved to dig deeper into the production and development.