Sundance Review: HEREDITARY
I fell in love with horror when I was just a kid and I’ve immersed myself in the genre ever since. However, as a result of spending over two decades as a staunch horror lover, I’ve found that it has become more and more difficult to find horror that really affects me; that sinks its teeth in and haunts my mind long after the film is over. It’s especially rare when I see a film that leaves me feeling shaken to the core. After I saw Ari Aster’s feature debut Hereditary at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, I knew that it would be one of those films. Up until the screening, I knew very little of the film, aside from the whispers that had been creeping around the internet. “The scariest film of 2018”, “Scariest movie in decades”, “The year’s scariest film”; all examples of the sort of response the film was receiving. I knew the film came from A24, the studio that brought us The Killing of a Sacred Deer, It Comes At Night, and The Witch, to name a few, and that it starred Toni Collette, but that’s about where my knowledge stopped. What I did know, was that I must see this film. I walked into a press screening of Hereditary on the morning of Wednesday, January 24th, and I walked out feeling like someone or something walked out with me. I haven’t been able to shake the feeling since and have on more than one occasion found myself up in the middle of the night with images from the film burned into my mind.
The film stars Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, and Ann Dowd. Collette and Byrne play the roles of Annie and Steve Graham, parents to Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The story opens on the Graham family who are in the midst of dealing with the loss of Annie’s mother, 78 year old Ellen Taper Leigh; each family member processing their grief (or lack thereof) in their own unique way. Annie, who clearly loved her mother despite some assumed estrangement, worries that she isn’t sad enough, while her husband Steve does his best to be a source of comfort and support for the family. Peter, who seems like he would always rather be smoking weed with his friends, seems vaguely unphased by his grandmother’s passing while Charlie, who was apparently the favored grandchild, mourns the loss in her own peculiar way, including building bizarrely macabre art projects from the bodies of dead animals. We later meet Joan (Ann Dowd), a friend of Annie’s who attempts to help counsel her through this period of grief. This brief character synopsis is all you need to know. As tempting as it may be, don’t watch the film’s trailer, don’t read too much about it, and go into the film as blind as you possibly can because the truth is, nothing will prepare you for the intensely disturbing content that Hereditary has hidden at its core.
Hereditary is on the same level of disturbing as films like mother! or The Killing of a Sacred Deer and while I agree that it very well may be the scariest film of the year, what makes Hereditary so special isn’t just the sheer terror that it evokes in its audiences. The cast, the cinematography, the score, and the screenplay itself all work seamlessly together to create a truly visceral and spine-chilling film that will break your heart and give you nightmares all at once. The cast of Hereditary are incredible at portraying their respective roles in the Graham family, which seems to be unraveling before our eyes as the story unfolds. Toni Collette gives a knockout performance as a woman who is slowly spiraling from grief to hysteria, while Gabriel Byrne perfectly captures the essence of a man who is just trying to hold his family together; the two perfectly complementing and balancing one another throughout the film. Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro both give outstanding performances as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the two soon become inundated with opportunities after Hereditary reaches the masses. The brilliant Ann Dowd is as always, brilliant, and rounds out a powerhouse cast that deserves all the awards--and I really mean that. With the recent victory for genre fans in the inclusion of Get Out and The Shape of Water as Oscar nominees, I can only hope that Collette’s performance will remain fresh in the minds of the Academy and HFPA when awards season rolls around again next year. I have been a fan of Toni Collette since the early days of her acting career (The Sixth Sense, About a Boy) and have followed her career closely enough through the years to see that she is a force to be reckoned with. Lynn Sear and Fiona Brewer - the respective characters she played in the aforementioned films - as well as her performances in Michael Dougherty’s 2015 film Krampus and Showtime’s United States of Tara - are among my favorites from her impressive resume, but none of her prior work rivals the honest, tormented, and frightening performance she gives as Annie Graham in Hereditary.
As disturbing as the film may be, there is also some incredible beauty to be noted, owed to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Tragedy Girls) who made the film look like a dream on screen, composer Colin Stetson (Lavender) who provided a chilling score, and of course, first time feature director Ari Aster who also wrote the film. It is almost impossible to consider the fact that Hereditary is the debut feature from Aster (who had only a handful of shorts on his resume until now) because not only is Hereditary an extremely effective horror film, it’s a damn good movie. There is such an intricately crafted story at its core, and as a great Master of Horror once said, “There’s creativity to be made in this genre more than any other because a good horror movie has to be a good movie first.” If you strip away the jump scares and the underlying sinister plot, Hereditary is a really heart-wrenching story about how loss can affect a family and how dangerous the secrets we keep can be. I feel the same way about Ari Aster that I felt about Robert Eggers after I saw his 2015 debut feature, The Witch; mesmerized by his sheer talent for filmmaking and impatient for more. I have no doubt that film lovers and genre fans alike will be chomping at the bit for the next twisted tale to come from the mind of Ari Aster.
Hereditary will see a wide theatrical release on June 8th, 2018 and I implore you to avoid the trailer or any information regarding the film until then, you’ll be glad you did.