So many horror films have been erroneously likened to The Exorcist in their marketing over the years, it’s understandable how modern cinemagoers could take such comparisons with a gargantuan fist of salt. The latest to adopt an analogous quote/mantle (“a new generation’s The Exorcist”) is director Ari Aster’s Hereditary. But fear not (or fear massively, rather) because Hereditary is a genuine modern horror classic that’s worthy of the comparison.
This is justified in the sense that one can imagine the impact it will have on modern audiences being comparable to how Friedkin’s classic rattled cinemagoers back in 1974. But Hereditary is still so much more than its marketing suggests. It’s aesthetically warped, immensely unnerving and miraculously manages to exceed expectation by flourishing out of genre trappings into a pioneering genre masterpiece.
The set-up introduces Toni Collette as Annie Graham: a successful artist in mourning following the recent death of her mother, while husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and two children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) also struggle with the loss. Soon the family grief manifests in a possibly paranormal manner (the first fright comes within the ten minutes), curtailing the family into shared and separate hells from which there seems no escape. It’s better to experience Hereditary with as little prior plot knowledge as possible. The air of mystery evoked in the trailer courses through the film’s first half suggesting an “antagonist’s” origin may remain unexplored, but the story takes several astonishing turns while subverting subgenre traits to make for massively engrossing and soul fracturing viewing.
Aster taps into relatively uncharted territory in terms of utilising grief as a component for terror within the context of indie horror that threatens to tinker into avant-garde. This hasn’t been attempted as efficaciously, to this extent, since Don’t Look Now in 1973; where the agony of grief (not the heartache or sorrow) is employed as the basis for foxing revulsion. Hereditary is adorned further with fever dream visuals, disturbing, incredible sound/music and ingenious editing. Fork tapping and tongue clicking make up just some of the diegetic and non-diegetic noises which clink into each other to distort and perturb while scenes within dreams featuring screams and insects slink into the subconscious before booming into a preternatural hangover. Terror also takes the shape of fugue states, sleepwalking, paranoia, hallucinations and light shafts bleeding into orb distortions, all channelled via the complex depth of suffering stemmed from a family’s loss.
Film/story aesthetics make Hereditary feel like some kind of Satanic self-hypnosis video. The horror is also gilded by disjointed angles presenting a skewed perspective of a family spiraling into psychosis. It is also the underlying normalcy that thumps beneath the weirdness which adds to its brilliance. The amount of imperative (to the plot) details the characters relay about themselves, their situation and relationships with each other are so expertly woven, not mechanically shoe-horned for exposition which slows the story down. The complex relationship between mother and son is touched upon but not greatly explored while other main characters seem shadowy (for protagonists) throughout. They are also all brought to life by extraordinary performances, especially Shapiro’s, who demonstrates astonishing depth, range and conviction as Charlie.
Hereditary sneaks under the soul to jut goose bumps, raise neck hairs and haunt the subconscious like The Exorcist did in its heyday, but in a manner that’s apt for modern audiences. There are many other moments that make one feel the same way when first seeing The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby and most of all Don’t Look Now, without directly imitating or paying homage to any of them. The slow but sensational release of torment resounds as a surge that is seldom sensed, seen or conveyed so masterfully in modern mainstream cinema.
In Hereditary’s case it propels the viewer face first into the mind-set of someone who knows they are about to die and perish in hell (even though that may not be the case plot-wise). Don’t let that put you off though. Hereditary is an imperative, outstanding cinematic achievement that will astound, punish, alleviate and stay with you long after the lights go out: turning every weird shadow and crooked towel in your bedroom into something that wants you dead.