Hereditary: The fear from within
One of the most frightening and accomplished horror films from the last decade, Ari Aster’s exceptional debut is a poignant study of human emotion through horror.
Released in 2018, Hereditary became almost instantly, both a fan favorite and a modern classic, with critics naming it one of the most terrifying movies ever made. It marked the arrival of one of the most authentic and superb voices in the horror genre today: Ari Aster. With only two films in a span of three years, Aster has become a master storyteller of horror. His debut, both as writer and director, follows the Graham family, who, after facing the death of one of their own, begin to experience strange and disturbing happenings around them and their home.
From the first moment, Hereditary presents a story that is going to be profoundly intimate. The first and final shots of Hereditary, for example, show the Graham house from afar, with the characters almost being reduced to tiny specks lost inside a wide frame. This formal decision paves the way for us to enter the space inhabited by the characters, yet keeps us slight afar; almost as if we’re staring at of one of the protagonist Annie’s miniature artworks from the outside. And it is in this intimacy that lies the terror of it all.
The one-of-a-kind horror found in Hereditary is built over an eerie atmosphere and slow-building tension, a play between the real and the imagined, as well as an added element of surprise. But this is not the kind of surprise we feel when we’re victims of jump scares. It’s actually quite the contrary. There are so many terrifying moments in the film, yet none of them are product of a fabricated jump scare: Peter’s breakdown at school, the final shots we see of Annie, the backseat of the car… all of those exemplify the fantastically unsettling horror of Hereditary -not to mention one of the most shocking scenes ever, which I’m not about to spoil-. In the end, much like the lingering presence of someone after they pass, the horror in Hereditary is one that lingers in the form of fear and confusion, long after we’ve left the theatre.
But beyond it being terrifying, what makes Hereditary stand out -what sets it apart from supernatural films like Sinister, The Conjuring, and so on- is that although its plot may revolve around paranormal elements, the story is about so much more. The film is a masterful take on the psychological horror subgenre, where drama and suspense intertwine to explore the depths of human emotion. Ari Aster finds in the horror genre the perfect place to explore some of the most complicated emotions to depict: pain and grief. This is something that Aster would go on to explore as well in his next film, Midsommar, thus establishing a pattern in the themes that he is intent to explore through his work in horror.
In Hereditary, the first scenes of the film serve almost as a prophecy of everything that is about to unfold before our eyes. The funeral scene has so many clues about what the film is ultimately about and how everything is going to end, especially when listening to Annie’s eulogy to her mother. But one of the elements of foreshadowing that I like the most is the discussion that is being had in the background of Peter’s class, one that will resurface in another scene later on. The discussion revolves around Heracles or Hercules. When discussing the subject of fate and destiny that underlies the story of Hercules in Greek mythology, Peter’s teacher asks the class if they consider that the story is more or less tragic given that Hercules cannot escape everything that happens to him. Right then and there, we don’t get much of an answer, but the scene is cut in the moment when a student is getting to the core of it. Hercules’s fate is very tragic precisely because of the inevitability of it all.
The setting is also a crucial element of the film. The most important moments of the story, including its climax and ending, take place in the domestic space: the Graham house. And this is relevant to the film inasmuch as it shows us the idea of home as a dangerous place. However, this is true not in the way that home invasion movies depict it, where danger comes from an outside threat; rather, the danger comes from within. The thing that is threatening the Graham family are themselves. That is what haunts them: Not a supernatural entity nor a killer on the loose; they are haunted by themselves, by their blood relations, and by their ancestor’s legacy. That is ultimately what makes the film both frightening and unsettling -even traumatizing-, in that it implies that our worst fears are those that have been passed to us; the fears that are on our very essence, the ones we’ve inherited, and the ones that ultimately decide our fates.
Naturally, there is only one way to end this review, and that is to address the glue that keeps it all together: Toni Collette’s riveting, gut-wrenching, historic performance. Any cinephile knows of the amazing talent that is Toni Collette. But her portrayal of Annie Graham in Hereditary has to be, not only her finest role, but one of the best performances in contemporary cinema. Her portrayal of this grieving, conflicted, at times terrible mother, is so multifaceted and profound that we can only hope to be able to take from it as much as possible. There is one scene in particular, where she is crying on the floor in response to a grim discovery she has made in the family car. She can barely speak but she somehow manages to utter the words: “I can’t… It hurts too much… I just want to die”. Right then and there, you can feel her grief, you can feel the burden of an unbearable pain. And then there’s her “I am your mother” monologue, which is acting talent at its highest peak. Both of the scenes made her more than deserving to get the proper recognition from the Academy, but unfortunately, given that horror has always been seen as a lesser genre, she has joined the long list of Oscar snubs -and honestly, one of the biggest ever-.