Movie Review : Hereditary (2018)
* This review contains spoilers *
A common mistake horror movies make is to declare their intentions too soon. They’re too transparent about what they’re trying to do. Haunted houses are old and decrepit. Satan worshipers wear goatees and pentagram pendants. If you know what to expect from characters, their behavior will never catch you off-guard and therefore won’t scare you. One movie that doesn’t fall in this trap is Ari Aster’s Hereditary. That movie is off the wall scary because you never know what to expect and nothing is thrown at you in a conventional manner. It is crippling in the best possible way.
Hereditary is the story of a family grieving the passing of their matriarch Ellen (played by an unnamed actress). Her daughter Annie (the mystifying Toni Collette), a control freak struggling with her family’s history of mental illness, feels devouring guilt because Ellen’s death means she can finally move on and be her own person. Her creepy granddaughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) starts seeing her elder everywhere and doing weird shit like beheading dead birds. And last but not least, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and Peter (Alex Wolff) are left wondering what the fuck is going on while trying to go on with their lives. Spoiler: it doesn’t go very well.
So, here’s the thing: Hereditary is mostly happening inside a beautiful, sunny suburban house and the protagonists are a family of blandly normal people, struggling with their own first world problems. That setting doesn’t seem very scary, but it the very reason why the movie is so terrifying. Because there’s nothing (or very little) that gives away the movie’s intentions. Ari Aster plays is as close to the vest as he can. Many times throughout my viewing I was like: “Man, this is what it must feel like to have a psychosis” only to have the movie undercut my assumptions by hinting that what Annie was seeing was real.
By mirroring normal life, the setting of Hereditary conceals the nature of the movie. I was inclined to believe Annie and her daughter were having psychotic breakdowns because of the family’s history of mental illness and the absence of supernatural signifiers. But that’s a false sense of security Ari Aster lulls you into. He wants you to rationalize what you’re seeing before hitting you in the balls. It’s not exactly a new trick, mind you. But one that’s too sparingly used. Sigmund Freud called it the uncanny. Pop culture’s favorite coke fiend said that if you want to really scare people, you have to turn what feels familiar or even mundane and boring, against them.
Hereditary is the hard evidence that it works way better than Gothic settings.
Another thing I want to discuss is Ari Aster’s attention to detail. Things that aren’t supposed to be scary are rendered terrifying in Hereditary. Let me give you an example. There’s this scene where Toni Collette follows an ant colony into her son’s room *. That scene works on three levels: 1) it’s scary before the reveal because of Toni Collette's insane skills at non-verbally communicating terror, which makes you anticipate the worst 2) it’s scary during the reveal, because… well, it’s fucked up and 3) it adds a layer by showing it was a dream, because you don’t know what a woman devoured by such crippling mental image is actually capable of. Annie is portrayed as both victim and perpetrator within one intricate scene.
It’s been a while since I’d seen a horror movie as convincing as Hereditary. I saw The Haunting of Hill House last weekend, which I thought was pleasantly scary, but comparing these would be like comparing boxing with 16 oz. gloves to boxing with bare knuckles. The former has the better overall writing, but Hereditary is not even in the same ballpark of scary. This is major league stuff, even if it leaned into a cliché or two towards the ending. Hereditary was flat-out one of my favorite moviegoing experience of the year. Ari Aster is 100% dedicated to his idea of inflicting terror and if he keeps directing with such passion and creativity, sky is the limit for this talented director.
* Not going to reveal why there were ants in her house, but the movie earned it. It’s not just spooky for the sake of being spooky. There were ants in a traumatic setting earlier.