Grief is just one word. One single word. But its very presence can uproot the strongest of corner-stones. Yet, not even faze the frailest of psyches. For no two people does grief work the same. It is its unique nature that makes it truly terrifying. How do you deal with something that you can not prepare for? How do you train your mind for that storm that is only understood once fully upon you? It is the fear of the unknown, the terror associated with that which we do not understand that Ari Aster plays around with in his film, Hereditary.
Hereditary begins with Collette’s character, Annie, attending the funeral of her estranged mother. It is obvious that her mother has had an unimaginable influence over her life. The effects of her influence, combined with the grief of losing her, brings forth the true theme of the film. Slowly, we watch each and every member of the family get affected. It becomes purely a game of waiting as to which shoe drops first. Oh boy do they drop! What makes it even more heartening is the subversion of expectation at every turn. It is like the director is looking at you and saying, “I know you would like if this happened. But ever wondered what it would be like if THIS happened?”.
Usually, audiences tend to favour films with nuns and witches rather than families suffering from terror of the most intimate kind. Hereditary, however, melds and weaves psychological and supernatural horror in a way that defies convention to the utmost degree. It becomes extremely hard for you to actually understand what is happening to this family. And let me tell you, you still might not, after the end. Is grief driving them insane or is there some insidious being at work, tearing this family apart?
It is this mixture of two styles that makes Hereditary unique. It truly has something for everyone. With the slow burn, rising terror seen in films like The Witch, psychological horror stemming from trauma, akin to The Babadook or straight up, gory and in your face, it scares along the lines of The Conjuring. Aster uses every tool he has and wrings everything from it. Lighting is used to play with our senses more than the characters’. The score is edgy, uncomfortable, unnerving and gets under your skin. The framing of each location in the house and the house itself feels very deliberate. Attention to the abundance of detail somehow works more to jar you than anything else. The cinematography in many places is surprisingly vibrant and detailed. But as you realize a little too late, it is all intentional; another tool to throw you off.
It would be hard to find something to add to what is already an impressive directorial feat. But Aster found some formidable talent in his actors, specifically Toni Collette. No stranger to the genre, Collette gives this role everything she has. Her performance is phenomenal and if the direction of the film is scary, her presence and sheer talent elevates every scene she is in. As a result, the drama has more weight and the scenes will haunt your dreams for days to come. Her performance is only matched by Alex Wolff, who would have stolen the show if it had not been for Collette.
The combination of these elements gives rise to a horror film that is rife with emotion and plays with audience till the very end. Every choice made by the film maker for the plot is brimming with metaphor, symbolism and a new question for the audience to ponder upon. You feel terrified, yes, but deep down you wonder if there is something that is being conveyed here, obfuscated by all that you can actually see. You understand less at each and every turn. Slowly, but steadily, fear sets in, replacing horror or terror or whatever word you may wish to use. Ghosts jumping out from dark hallways may be horrifying or terrorizing, but actual fear is quite different – more visceral than anything you can imagine. Hereditary gives you a taste of that and you do not wish that.
It is the final act of the film that does not match up to the rest of its brilliance. Throughout the film, we are made to struggle with the idea of psychological against supernatural. Every scene provides fresh clues in favour of one, while the next one advocates the other. But at the end, the so-called debate is resolved and the film seemingly makes a decision about what it wishes to be. It is a bold step to take. It is another form of expectation subversion – actually revealing what took place and why it did. However, this decision seems to neuter a lot of terrific and genuinely ambiguous sequences in the film, at some points making them laughable. It goes a long way in dismantling many things the film sets up and presents and would have destroyed the whole thing altogether if it hadn’t been so damn good.
Despite that, Hereditary can still hold its own against many of the horror films of the modern generation and may be among the top horror films of all time. It is terrifying when it needs to be, emotional, dramatic, creepy and even gross, if so be the demand. It does nothing that regular, every-day horror films do and if that does not appeal to you then there is a good chance you won’t like the film. But if you prefer your horror films to slowly make their way under your skin without your knowledge and then rip your heart out without warning, then Hereditary is the film for you. Personally, I would like to add that I was terrified. Also, I know I am going to watch it again.