There’s been a ton of hype surrounding Ari Aster’s Hereditary ever since it shocked viewers at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. Reviewers have heralded it as a gamechanger, a breath of new life in a stale genre, not only the scariest horror film of the year but maybe one of the scariest of all time. In the months leading up to it’s full theatrical release this weekend, the buzz has grown to epic proportions and horror fans across the country wondered if the film itself could live up.
It does — mostly.
Hereditary is fucking bleak. The beginning, middle, and end is filled to the brim with death, misery, and suitably grim imagery. At the center of the story is the breakdown of an already strained family. Things have not been well for the Graham family — parents Annie and Steve, played spectacularly by Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne, respectively, and their children Charlie and Peter — for long before the events of the film, thanks in large part to the presence of Annie’s overbearing and estranged mother, Ellen. The story opens with Ellen’s funeral and it’s clear that most of the family is none too broken up that the old lady is gone. Annie later reveals that her mother’s life had been fraught with mental illness, suicide, and, toward the end of her life, dementia. Annie’s resentful relationship with her mother affects her relationship with her own children, exacerbated especially by her daughter Charlie’s closeness with Ellen. Charlie was her grandmother’s “favorite,” and the only member of the family who seems to be truly mourning her death. Charlie also spends the film exhibiting some bizarre behavior that her family struggles to understand and control.
It’s hard to give an overview of the rest of the story without giving too much away. The film is deeply unsettling, comparable to The Witch in tone, appropriately so as the two films share a producer in Lars Knudsen. The horror of Hereditary could never be described as subtle but it does have slow-burn affect, the kind of terror that creeps under your skin and into your soul. It’s (almost) free of jump scares and, while the visuals are often violent and gruesome, it (almost) never feels like empty shock value. Perhaps that accounts for its poor CinemaScore grade — a tragic D+. Maybe audiences were expecting a different kind of scary than what Hereditary delivers.
But it is scary; that much is undeniable. You will spend the full 2+ hours on the edge of your seat, unable to pry your eyes away from the screen, and you will leave the theater feeling shaken to your core. At least, you should.
Suffice it to say, most of the hype is legit. However, the big reveal falls just short of the buildup. While Hereditary definitely stands out against the many cookie cutter, by-the-numbers entries to the genre, that isn’t to say that it doesn’t make use of some well-worn horror tropes, for better or worse. The endgame is more convoluted than necessary, with a sprinkling of misogynistic undertones. Still, the final scene doesn’t feel like a complete let down, but it will leave you asking: what the fuck? That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. In mine, it’s neither entirely one or the other. It could have been better but it is a bizarre, disturbing ending to a bizarre, disturbing film.
In short, Hereditary is probably as good and as frightening as you’d expect. It is not for the faint of heart. There is nothing light about this film. There are no brief moments of humor or optimism to relive the tension. There is no happy ending where the family emerges from their struggles a little worse for wear but stronger and closer for it. It will haunt you as you leave the theater and probably while you lie in bed at night. If that is the sign of a horror film well done, then Hereditary truly is one of the best to come along in years.