It may take a while to process your feelings once you’ve seen Hereditary, the scary debut feature from writer-director Ari Aster. A lot of horror movies kind of wink at you in a self-reflexive manner, as if to say, “Isn’t this fun?” Aster doesn’t do that, and although the plot of this film goes to some outlandish places, the themes and emotional undercurrents are dead serious.
Toni Collette plays Annie, a miniaturist making little houses and rooms populated with tiny human figures and furniture. This immediately establishes a strange vibe in which the story itself is framed as a kind of miniature. When the film opens, Annie’s aged mother has just died, and her brief eulogy at the memorial service reveals that her feelings are very conflicted. The mother was a difficult and private person who liked rituals, says Annie, and she remarks that she’s surprised at how many people have shown up at the memorial service.
The dead woman, Ellen, becomes a kind of hovering presence throughout the rest of the film. Annie’s little nuclear family seems normal enough: a loving but somewhat distracted husband Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne, and a teenage son Peter, played by Alex Wolff, with typical concerns of his age—getting girls and getting high. But the 13-year-old daughter with the odd name of Charlie, played by Milly Shapiro, seems damaged in some way, and especially upset by the death of grandma, who evidently had a special bond with her. Then, something terrible happens, something so awful that it shakes the family to the core.
Aster’s style here is what you would call “slow” horror: the kind in which characters slowly walk towards the next frightening scene or revelation. The plot develops mysteriously, but what’s impressive here is the accretion of small details—stuff that you might miss if you’re not paying close attention, but end up becoming significant pieces of the puzzle. The performers are first rate, but in the lead role, Toni Collette really goes the extra mile. Rarely will you see an actor portraying panic and desperation better than she does here. She’s capable of taking the audience through the most heightened extremes in rapid order, and with complete conviction.
I’m being vague about the plot elements because I don’t want to spoil things for you. But the feelings of dread and despair in Hereditary owe their power to more than just the plot. The family at the center, seemingly normal as I said, exudes an unspoken visceral presence—whether it’s incest or some other kind of abuse, or just secret desires and hatreds, we can’t tell for sure, but it permeates the film like a strong odor. It might even be difficult for some people with childhood issues to watch the film. This unsettling atmosphere is what makes the film effective rather than shock or terror, although there’s a little bit of that too.
Another important aspect of the picture is the sense, true to the film’s title, that the events occurring are inevitable and unstoppable, coded into the structure of the family, as it were, and impervious to the character’s will. This sense of doom is what makes Hereditary one of the best and most interesting horror films of recent times.