Billed out of Sundance as the next Rosemary’s Baby and/or Exorcist, and hailed as the most terrifying movie you’ll ever see, Hereditary had an impossible hill of hype to climb. And indeed, it could not climb that hill, earning a D+ CinemaScore on its opening weekend. I saw this one at a Saturday matinee and could feel the majority of the audience turning against it, and one dude angrily hurled popcorn dregs at his friend for “making me sit through that”, while another guy audibly harped about wanting his money back. So I was not surprised to see that CinemaScore, because MAYBE ten people at my showing actually liked Hereditary, including me. I really like this film. It is very good. Is it the next Rosemary’s Baby? No, because no movie is ever the “next” anything. But Hereditary is good enough to stand up on its own and become “Hereditary”, a point of reference on the evolutionary scale of horror.
Comparisons to mother! are inevitable thanks to that CinemaScore, but these are VERY different films. mother! invites, even encourages, your active dislike. It also wants you to fight about meaning and intention. Hereditary, though, isn’t confrontational and isn’t trying to make you hate it. It’s just not going to deliver Hollywood-style scares. It’s a horror movie—do not listen to any “Hereditary isn’t REALLY a horror movie” takes because that’s just genre-shaming and it very much definitely is a horror movie—but it isn’t invested in jump scares or presenting a supernatural puzzle to solve. There is no magic incantation or rite to make the ghosts go away. There are barely even ghosts. Hereditary is mostly just a family unraveling interspersed with the occasional nod to the occult.
Anchoring the film is Toni Collette as Annie, an artist and mother who is adrift in the beginning because of her mother’s recent death. They had a difficult relationship, and she’s not really grieving as she feels she should be, and so Annie struggles with the guilt of non-grief more than she does actual grief. Just in case you forgot Toni Collette is a f*cking great actress, Hereditary is here to remind you that Toni Collette is a f*cking great actress. She carries the film and the best scenes are Annie confronting her history with her mother and her own children. The most wrenching scenes in the film are between Annie her teenaged son, Peter (Alex Wolff, graduating from Jumanji like WHOAH). Collette is rightfully getting a lot of praise for her performance, but don’t sleep on Alex Wolff’s work. The two of them are PHENOMENAL. And Milly Shapiro, a former Broadway Matilda, makes a huge impression as Creepy Horror Kid Charlie.
Hereditary is precisely constructed, the look of the film echoing the work of Annie, a model-maker and artist. The film is rooted in very mundane spaces—house, school, and back again—but the construction of shots and particularly the use of depth of field make it look as paper-thin as Annie’s models. This is the feature film debut of Ari Aster, who joins Robert Eggers (The Witch) and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) on the list of Directors Who Made Obnoxiously Good Horror Movies The First Time Out. The only dings on Hereditary are that it’s a little too long, and the score is heavy-handed at first, as if the audience can’t quite be trusted to make the correct assumptions about characters and pick up on foreshadowing. To be fair to Aster, these are both extremely common issues in contemporary cinema, and he does get the score under control about halfway through.
I guess I have to issue a “not for everybody” warning, but you should really try Hereditary, for the performances and the style if not the scares. I also need to issue a “beware the dog” warning. My brother is a horror aficionado and he has a theory that if a dog is in a horror movie, it will die. Hereditary does not prove him wrong, though it is off-screen, if that makes a difference. Besides, there is WAY worse stuff in Hereditary. I don’t like it when the dog dies, either, but that barely even registers stacked against a couple of the images in Hereditary. Is it the scariest movie ever? No, but it’s definitely going to stick with you for a while.