A combination of psychological and supernatural horror, Hereditary has just the right genetic makeup of a great movie.
A remote home in the woods; a precocious child’s mysterious behavior; the death of an estranged relative with a troubled past. Hereditary has all the ingredients of a schlock horror movie, but the top tier performances and masterful visual storytelling places it among the best of the genre.
I purposefully didn’t watch a trailer or read any articles about Hereditary before I saw the film last weekend. A promotional photo of Toni Collette screaming was reason enough for me to see it. But Hereditary has so many more things going for it than just Toni’s raw, emotional performance.
Collette plays Annie, the reluctant matriarch of a family that doesn’t exactly prioritize “togetherness”. At first, it seems Annie’s preoccupation with her life as a fine artist is the reason for her reluctant parenting. She spends most of her time in her home studio, creating meticulously crafted dioramas that portray moments from her life. But, as we learn later when she attends a grief support group, Annie has not had the easiest life. Her adolescence was one traumatic event after the next, mostly as a result of her fraught relationship with her mother whose funeral is the opening scene. Her decision to live with her family in a remote cabin in the woods has more to do with escaping trauma than a preference for nature.
Given her troubled past, Annie has a detached relationship to her children. Her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), is in the restless final stages of adolescence and his little sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), is at the beginning of her’s and she is slowly beginning to display signs of a troubled inner life. When a bird smacks into a window at her school and dies, Charlie cuts off its head and saves it – and we soon realize that it’s not because of an early interest in taxidermy. Turns out, Annie’s troubled family life is far from over. In fact, it’s just beginning.
In addition to the top notch acting, I enjoyed watching director Ari Aster show off his command for visual storytelling. His first feature is an amazing debut full of meticulous framing and clever uses of light / dark. Even scenes without scares often show a command for visual flair that provide insight into a character’s emotional state. For example, when the support group scene begins, we see a high, wide shot of a high school gym and a typical circle of folding chairs filled with people drinking from styrofoam coffee cups. Slowly, cautiously, the camera moves forward with glacial-like pace, moving towards Annie and ending in a close up of her as she list off the many traumatic episodes of her life. The slow, creeping pace of the camera allow us to drink in the other members of the group as they shift uncomfortably in their seats and look at each other with concern about Annie’s fraught history.
Another one of my favorite film-geek moments was towards the end when Annie enters a room and Annie reacts in horror at an object that is close to camera and too blurry for us to make out. It’s only when she walks towards the object that we also start to see a charred, human hand come into focus and her horror is soon matched by ours. There’s also a beautiful close up of Peter in bed, his eyes staring just past camera. When he moves his eyes, a small, red spectral highlight can be seen in the reflection of his pupils. It’s a week since I saw the film, and I’m still thinking about that shot (and how I’m going to steal it for my own film!)
I highly recommend seeing Hereditary in the theater since many of its most haunting images happen in extreme shadow and it’s really fun to hear the audience’s reaction to the different scares.