The poster for young, American director Ari Aster’s new, buzzing horror film Hereditary proudly proclaims it to be “a new generations The Exorcist”, a bold statement and one that immediately puts the film on somewhat of a doomed pedestal. The Exorcist is widely known as one of cinema’s scariest and most stylish horror films, lending it a legacy that horror fans feel very protective over. Setting audience expectations so high is a dangerous game with any film but the self-fulfilling legacy of the horror genre means that aiming high can sometimes prove to be less effective than slipping under the radar. None of the recent films that have defined the arthouse horror resurgence, from The VVitch to It Follows to Raw, have made proclamations such as this one – it is a testament, then, to Hereditary’s horror credentials, that it truly is a cavalcade of terror that yet again reinforces the arthouse leanings of the horror resurgence.
Maintaining a sense of dread from the very opening scene and throughout its numbing two hour running time, Hereditary drops us in on a family who are dealing with the recent death of the matriarch that seems to have cast a shadow on them during the final years of her life. Annie Graham, played with severe gusto by Toni Colette, is attempting to guide her two children, quiet stoner Peter and reclusive, potentially autistic Charlie, through the grieving process with the help of her loving husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne). When a series of devastating events culminate in another disaster, the family begins to fracture and collapse. But is this as simple as grief creating emotional rifts between family members? Or are there deeper, more sinister machinations at work attempting to rip them apart?
Make no mistake, Ari Aster has set out to deeply disturb audiences with this film. Every slow camera pan, every distinct creak and whisper in the sound design, every subtle line delivery from his actors is designed to keep the audience directly engaged whilst simultaneously warning them to escape whilst they can. It is not very often that a horror film feels like a well crafted, if entirely sinister, symphony but Aster is so in control of his tone and pacing – a drip-feed of unsettling moments that culminate in a cacophony of visceral and stomach churning imagery. It could probably be most likened to the final quarter of Rosemary’s Baby in this way but even Polanski didn’t stretch the intensity as far as Aster does here. He unsettles in imaginative ways too, using the continuing motif of the miniature houses that Annie builds for her work as locales to displace the audience, to trick them into a perspective before yanking them out of it.
The crown jewel of the film, or at least its most marketable asset, is the staggering performance from Toni Colette in her second role as a horror movie mother (after 1999’s The Sixth Sense). Her character, Annie, is forced through multiple stages of grief and desperation and what Colette does with the escalating terror is nothing less than extraordinary. Violently flipping between the repressed subtlety of her pain during her group counselling sessions and the incandescent rage that comes bursting out of her during family arguments, this is an actor at the top of her game. Violently physical and unafraid to contort her face into the most visceral expressions of terror since Mia Farrow herself, Colette serves as the lynchpin around which Aster can paint a devilish backdrop. The fact that the other performances in the film (Milly Shapiro’s Charlie and her shudderingly effective clucking noises will become part of horror film lore) don’t get buried under Colette’s is a miracle of smart directing.
It feels as though familial horror has become a new trend in cinema lately. From the disturbingly white, liberal household of Get Out to the pilgrim family of The VVitch, horror films seem to be warning us of the insidious danger that is lurking, ready to tear the family unit apart. Hereditary looks inwards, at the dramaturgy that exists in the family unit and how bizarre the concept of unconditional love can be. For audiences looking to have an authentic horror experience, there is no better place to watch Hereditary than in a packed cinema. But be warned, once the house lights come up, some of those final images in the film may stay with you for quite a while afterwards.
Hereditary will be released into UK cinemas on 15th June 2018.