By the end of Hereditary you might feel a bit like the traumatised figure in Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream. This disturbing and brilliantly gripping tale of supernatural horror and family disintegration will make your jaw drop and your eyes grow wide. It gets under your skin and inside your head, and might have you covering your ears in distress. It really is that good.
This debut from writer-director Ari Aster has been compared to classic films of the late 60s/early 70s that feature the occult, such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. Like them, it plays things straight, never pandering to a modern horror audience who might expect a few laughs with their scares. Hereditary is deadly serious, and it is all the more terrifying for it.
The film starts with an on-screen death notice for Ellen Leigh, who has just ‘passed away after a long illness’, aged 78. We see a treehouse through an open window before the camera pans slowly over the contents of a workshop, which seems to involve the making of doll’s houses, then goes into one of the miniature rooms, where a boy is sleeping in bed. Cut to life-size teenage boy Peter (Alex Wolff) in his real bedroom. His dad (Gabriel Byrne) comes in carrying a black suit – it is the day of his grandma’s funeral.
Hereditary’s dread-full score puts us on edge as soon as we see younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a strange-looking 13 year-old, sleeping in the treehouse. Starting with belchingly low blasts of synth or bassoon, Colin Stetson’s simple music gnaws away in the background like a constant worry.
At the funeral Annie (Toni Collette) has trouble saying a good thing about her mother. We learn that Ellen was stubborn, private and secretive – a ‘difficult woman to read’. While she is speaking Charlie draws ugly pictures of her mother in her sketch book. Later Annie tells Charlie that she was always her grandma’s favourite and that she never cried as a baby, even when she was born.
Charlie is a disturbed and disturbing child, whose off-kilter features unnerve us. She makes peculiar hybrid sculptures out of junk, as if mocking the intricate miniaturist art of her mother, and she has the unsettling habit of making a loud ‘clock’ noise with her tongue.
The family’s gloomy house, set amongst silver birch trees in the middle of nowhere, is a haunted house from casting central. A pall of dread hangs over it and we just know that something appalling is going to happen in that treehouse. If you list a few of the things that feature in Hereditary, it makes the film sound like occult horror-by-numbers: sleepwalking, scéances, books on witchcraft, weird words (SATONY, ZAZAS) and symbols drawn on bedroom walls, buzzing flies and insects and something unspeakable up in the attic.
But director Aster completely wrong-foots us. A shocking event changes everything and makes it impossible to discuss the plot without spoiling it.
At more than two hours long Hereditary has a cumulative slow-burn intensity that deepens and quickens as the Leigh family struggle to come to terms with Ellen’s legacy. As the pace picks up during its finale, horror is piled on horror and we marvel at Toni Collette’s extraordinary acting. Her anguish and pain are so authentic it hurts. This domestic drama concerned with family secrets is like a play with a small tight-knit cast; few outsiders feature, but special mention must go to Ann Dowd (so good in The Handmaid’s Tale), as Annie’s bereaved friend Joan.