Any movie that carries the quote “this generation’s The Exorcist” was always going to court a bit of controversy, and so it was that Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary became one of the year’s most controversial movies. Garnering a damning ‘D+’ rating on cinemascore from test audiences in the States, but a raft of five star reviews from critics (including us), this was a movie that variously scared people senseless or left them totally incensed, so heightened were its emotions and visuals.
Those who loved it REALLY loved it – and that certainly goes for us. A haunted house movie, where the hauntings come from within the bereaved and traumatised family at the movie’s heart, Hereditary is not only deeply terrifying but also personal and harrowing. It’s a movie steeped in grief and trauma but don’t assume Hereditary’s chills are all metaphorical – this is also comfortably the most batshit supernatural horror of the year.
Toni Collette gives a powerhouse performance as Annie, whose domineering mother has just passed away as the film begins. Annie is an artist who builds miniature dioramas showing scenes from her life, strengthening the pervasive feeling that the family lives in a doll’s house and is being manipulated by some higher force. Indeed, that’s one of the questions the movie poses: is it worse if you’re the master of your own downfall, or if you never had any choice in the matter all along?
Alex Wolff is terrific too as Annie’s disaffected stoner son Peter who, after an unimaginably horrific accident starts to unravel, while Gabriel Byrne is incredulous and stoic as Annie’s husband, watching helpless as his family descends deeper and deeper into hell.
It’s young Millie Shapiro as the daughter of the clan that’s the poster-child for this film though. In the trailer we see her snipping the head off a dead pigeon with a pair of scissors, and she only gets stranger from there.
Premiering in the midnight section of Sundance in January 2018 to rave reviews, the rest of us had to wait until June to catch the full force of Hereditary’s madness. By then it had built incredible buzz from the trailer and poster quotes alone. Reports from some viewers that the film was almost too scary were echoed on the film’s release. It’s true, certain images from the film are the stuff of nightmares and can’t be un-seen.
Hereditary isn’t just scary though, it’s also an incredibly artful piece of filmmaking. Night turns into day like a flick of a light switch; Annie’s house grows darker and more labyrinthine as the plot twists and turns; dreams and shadows bleed into the everyday until it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t.
If Toni Collette doesn’t get some attention for her performance come awards season we can only imagine it’ll have something to do with genre-bias, though Hereditary’s wider themes and artful shots prompted some to argue that it was part of some new sub-genre called ‘elevated horror’. Whatever you want to label it, Hereditary doesn’t shy away from violence and shocks and its genre trappings make this story of a family destroying each other all the more powerful.
Like the Philip Larkin poem goes: “They fuck you up, your mum and…” well just your mum really.