Every once in a while, a horror film comes out that is so chilling, so horrifying, that it becomes a cultural sensation. Hereditary is not that film. But it does come close.
Directed and written by Ari Aster, the film is his first full-length feature. For a debut horror feature, it’s impressive. Hereditary introduces us to the Graham family; Annie and her husband Steve, and their two kids, Peter and Charlie. Annie’s mother has just passed away, and things are immediately amiss when Annie notices many unfamiliar faces at the funeral. We learn that Annie’s mother was a deeply private person. Despite living in the same home as the rest of the family later in her life, she never quiet gelled with the others, with the exception of Charlie, her granddaughter.
Like grandma, like a granddaughter, Charlie has her eccentricities as well. Milly Shapiro perfectly captures them as Charlie. Charlie is without a doubt one strange kid, but Shapiro makes sure that we still care about her. Toni Collette really stretches herself to the limit as Annie, the one family member who still feels the need for closure after her mother’s passing. Alex Wolff gives an emotionally taxing performance as well, especially during a key scene that we’ll touch on a little more later. Rounding out the family is level-headed Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne, who’s given the least to do but nevertheless has his moments as a father watching his family struggle.
In terms of cinematography, the film is a masterpiece. Just like Annie who makes her living building miniature houses, Aster has an eye for detail. Each shot is set up like a portrait, with the details in the background just as important as those in the foreground. One of my favorite horror movie elements is when directors hide creepy things in plain sight. Instead of jump scares, there’s the moment of fright when you realize there’s something that’s been in the shot the whole time and you just didn’t see it. Hereditary has this in spades. Once realizing it the first time I kept scouring shots for hidden horrors and was not disappointed.
The cast is great and the cinematography stellar. So what’s the issue with the film? Well, no matter how good the secondary elements of a film are, they rarely work without a good plot. Not that Hereditary’s story is bad, per se. Rather, there’s a lot of wasted potentials. The film starts off as a really engaging character study about a family dealing with death. Since it affects them each in different ways, there’s a foreboding sense of dread throughout. When this finally reaches a crescendo halfway through the film, we’re treated, if treated is even the right word, to one of the most chilling scenes of any horror movie of the last ten years. But after that, the film isn’t sure what to do with itself. In fact, knowing that it won’t top the terror and magnitude of its halfway point, it doesn’t even try. The rest of it becomes a by-the-numbers horror movie, packed with cliches and an ending you’ll see coming from a mile away. Additionally frustrating is that it introduces important elements late in the game, so everything leading up to that feels like a waste.
If many action movies suffer from “Deus ex Machina,” a character arriving at the last minute to save everything, then Hereditary contains “Diabolus ex Machina.” You can probably guess what this means. Unwilling to trust the audience to accept ambiguity or a surprising ending, Aster creates a reason for why bad things happen to this family that seems to come from a different film. In its very title, Hereditary, there’s an implication that the horror will come from the family and its ancestry. To add an external boogeyman, especially so late in the film, feels cheap.
Ultimately, is Hereditary the horror film of the decade, like so many news pieces seem to be suggesting? Nope. But it nevertheless is a promising debut from a sure to be an up-and-coming filmmaker. As his first full-length feature, Ari Aster shows that he’s a force to be reckoned with, even as he seems afraid to take risks with the story he tells. I predict that in a few years, Aster will give us that horror movie, the one that truly terrifies us while giving us something unexpected. Until then, Hereditary is a decent appetizer.
With an intriguing premise and a talented cast, Hereditary starts off strong. However, a cliched second half and a dull and contrived late game secondary plot ensure that it never quite lives up to its potential.