Hereditary, the new horror film starring Toni Colette, something so shocking, so unexpected happens, it evoked a collective gasp from the audience. It’s a moment so terrible, I have gooseflesh just thinking about it. Yet, frankly, the long stretch of silence that follows this incident – nearly four minutes of unsettling quiet – is as eerie as anything else in the film.
Written and directed by Ari Aster, Hereditary has been billed, alongside The Exorcist and The Shining, as one of the best horror films ever.
In his first full-length feature film as director, Aster, also the writer of Hereditary, does the simplest of things – he reverses the horror trope of a haunted child and a distraught mother. Now imagine what we have here? A woman who may be losing it, who may have already lost it, who has a genetic lineage of mental conditions, and who now holds in her hands the fate of her two confused and nervous children, a clueless husband, a flourishing career and an inflammable home. Can the world imagine a horror worse than a mother who could harm, really harm?
As we watch her every move, around her children; around those tiny dioramas she makes of events of her life for a museum exhibit, not sparing even the unpleasant details; around her distressed daughter; around the things of her late, disturbed mother; around the decisions she takes flailing about for answers, Hereditary is a film of breathing, tangible horror.
Hereditary’s central ideas include the difficulty of letting go of your past and the possibility of inheriting trauma. Aster’s cinema-literate staging of the scenes draws upon a host of influences ranging from demon spawn films such as The Omen (1976) and The Exorcist (1973) to recent arthouse productions such as The Babadook (2014). As Hereditary unfolds at a slow burn, it occasionally feels like a crib sheet by a director clearly outlining his influences and wanting to play with the toys left behind by previous generations. Every time this happens, though, a terrifying visual or an explosion of blood and violence bring back things on an even keel.
It’s heartbreaking then that the film abandons its elegant, classic approach – from teetering on the edge of creepiness to plunging into full-on supernatural horror – around the midway mark. It descends into a bloated mess of blood and fire, and culminates in a bizarre, outlandish climax that belongs in a different film.
Hereditary is ultimately a satisfying horror movie that falls short of true greatness, even as its leading lady delivers a level of acting rarely witnessed in the genre.