Guilt, ghosts, and a powerhouse performance by Toni Collette help make this a must-see for horror fans.
To clarify the title of this review so as to avoid (more) accusations of having spoiled the film, no, Hereditary does not end with a twist even remotely similar to the one in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. Instead, it’s a tone and style the two films share in their stories about families and children forced to face death. Both are patient with their camera, characters, and script, and both build horrors from the familiar making the scares more effective along the way.
The Graham family is grieving, to a degree, the death of their matriarch, Ellen. She had distanced herself from her daughter Annie’s (Toni Collette) family including husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), but she made an effort to bond with the younger daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Life goes on without her, but it does so with something unnatural in the air. Charlie, herself distant from those around her, begins noticing strange figures watching her from afar, and it soon becomes clear that she’s being haunted by her grandmother.
Or is she?
You’ll want to go in to the film with no further plot synopsis as it takes the familiar and shifts it in frightening, affecting, and bloody ways that are both surprising and satisfying. The family comes under attack from within as feelings of blame and guilt clash with ugly results making writer/director Ari Aster‘s feature debut a dense, patient creepshow capturing the breakdown of a family beneath pressure both natural and supernatural.
Time is given to character and atmosphere that builds terror in extended stretches, and along with cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski and an eerie score from Colin Stetson these sequences work to unnerve before the true horrors have even revealed themselves. Viewers are primed for the nightmares to come, and Aster doesn’t disappoint as he drops jump scares, gory bits, and increasingly intense sequences into the film’s back half leading to an ending that chills in fantastic ways.
Horror movies aren’t often praised for their performances, but this will be one of the exceptions as everyone brings their A-game. Shapiro crafts a young girl who’s slightly askew from the world around her but in touch enough to know that something strange is happening. The endlessly reliable and eternally untrustworthy Ann Dowd arrives as a woman who shares Annie’s grief, and Wolff shines as poor Peter is traumatized at several turns. It’s Collette who stands apart, though, with a performance that would earn award-talk in a more traditional drama. She crumbles beneath the grief, rages against those responsible, and finds a real ferocity on her way to the film’s ending, and you believe every moment. Aster’s tale weaves in elements both fresh and familiar and refuses to settle for one subgenre of horror meaning terror comes in the form of ghosts, deranged humans, madness, and the heart-crushing pain that comes with loss.
Moments here hit hard, but at over two hours some of the threads never quite come to fruition. Annie’s job as a creator of miniature rooms and houses gets a lot of attention, and while it works initially as a visual entrance into the movie — quite literally — it’s never used for anything else. She has an upcoming show deadline that she might not meet, and we hear about it several times without real reason giving these scenes a repetitive nature. And poor Byrne has pretty much nothing to do as good ol’ Steve.
It’s a minor complaint, though, for a movie that takes hold and never truly lets up as more truths are revealed and the outcome grows more terrifyingly inevitable. Hereditary is a fantastic horror film that pairs its scares with real emotion, and that combination sees each aspect enhance the other. You’ll remember this one long after the credits end.
[Note: Our review of Hereditary originally ran during Sundance 2018.]