There appears to be a great deal of confusion about what “Hereditary,” the new film by director Ari Aster, is actually about. This is no doubt due to the fantastically misleading trailer, which to all appearances makes the film out to be some sort of “Creepy child does creepy things” horror, which it kind of is … But Hereditary hits emotional lows and creates an atmosphere of total hopelessness that’s rare in film, even in a genre that mostly concerns itself with murderers and demons.
Hereditary’s sense of impending doom is in no small part to the fantastically acted family dynamics of the Graham family, whose mentally unstable matriarch Alice (Toni Collette) is an artist who constructs miniatures that hint at generational strife and repressed madness. Her mother was, as Alice puts it, “A secretive and private woman,” although it becomes very apparent as the film goes on that Alice’s mother has been keeping a dark, supernatural secret that Alice seems to be unable to face head-on. This secret is central to the plot twists in the film, so central that I’d risk ruining the fun by saying too much but let’s just say that you should expect some dark paranormal intrigue and some remarkably visceral gore. Several decapitations, including a very troubling scene featuring a garotte, should satisfy the “Blood n’ Guts” crowd.
Repression is a heavy theme in Hereditary. Alice’s husband Steve (a befuddled Gabriel Byrne) seems to be at the end of his rope emotionally dealing with all the family drama, but keeps a brave face. The kids, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are even more dysfunctional, but for VERY different reasons. From the trailer, I expected that the eccentric Charlie would be the protagonist of the film. She’s socially awkward, isolated, and drives Alice crazy with her total lack of engagement with family and the world in general. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that not only is something deeply wrong with the Graham family, something is especially wrong with young Charlie, whom the film nonetheless makes us feel sympathy for, at least at first. Suffice it to say, she’s not only not the protagonist, she’s … Something else entirely.
Hereditary takes so many turns even early on however that it’s not immediately apparent who we’re meant to be rooting for, or even who or what the bad guy (or monster) is supposed to be. Hereditary seemingly can’t make up its mind as to what kind of horror movie it is, touching on elements of haunted houses, demonic possession, cults, family paranoia and art-house intrigue, but the fact that it manages to tie so many threads together without being totally overwhelming is a testament to how good the script and cinematography are. The sets are so well-made that you barely notice them, the Graham’s house is a modern one that people would actually live in, a refreshing change from the usual “dark n’ spooky” horror setting. Watch the trailer, or better yet don’t, go sit in a dark theatre and get freaked out by this ghoulishly dark film. The hype is real … This could actually be one of the scariest movies since “The Exorcist.”