Ari Aster’s debut horror film Hereditary is a two-hour long nightmare. Colin Stetson’s moody score coupled with Pawel Pogorzelski’s camerawork in the opening moments to create an unsettling tone. The visuals are crisp and clean, but there always seems to be something terrifying not far from the surface.
The film opens with a funeral that causes a crumbling family to experience strange occurrences and fall further apart. Annie (Toni Collette) is an artist who is struggling to meet a deadline for an upcoming art show. Annie has been unable to move beyond the trauma inflicted on her by her recently deceased mother Ellen. Annie’s relationship with her weary husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is no better. While Ellen was never nice to anyone in her waning years, she developed a bond with Charlie, causing a further rift between her and Annie.
Hereditary plays out mostly as a two-hander between Annie and Peter. The film never lets up from its focus on the family members, except for a character who is a mysterious member of Annie’s support group. Toni Collette’s engrossing and terrifying performance lets viewers accompany her on her journey in a very real, visceral way. Wolff who plays a sullen stoner who cannot see eye-to-eye with his mother, and often with reason, brings a real innocence to the character.
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.
Aster never relies on jump scares to provoke a reaction. Instead, there is a slow creeping dead as the camera pans over intense imagery – flies feeding on a rotting carcass, explosions of blood. The horror is accentuated by the fact that much of the film is a chamber piece. The supernatural is treated calmly, and it is the normal in fact, that is out of the ordinary.