Hereditary burns slowly and unnervingly for most of its journey, becoming increasingly unsettling, and plain weird, as it goes along. This is all for the good. Heavy going it may be, but it keeps you guessing, and, thankfully, it happens to be superbly produced, acted and directed. For the great portion of its nearly two hour running time, it feels more like a slowly unravelling psychological thriller than an outright horror movie. Again, all for the good in my book.
The story steers you into this frame of thought, as we confront the woes befalling the family of Annie Graham (Toni Collette), husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). We learn the family has a history of acute mental illness which has played out to devastating circumstances. When we first meet the Grahams there is a death to deal with, that of Annie’s mother. It’s the aftermath of the mother’s actions which the family has to deal with throughout the film. That’s really as much of the plot as I want to discuss. If you’ve seen the publicity around Hereditary you’ll have seen it referred to as a modern day The Exorcist. As such, the spectre of demonic possession looms, and you’ll not want to know more for fear of spoiling the film’s many surprises and twists.
Top class acting drives Hereditary along. Toni Collette has been collecting plenty of praise for this role and deservedly so. Her Annie is a woman disturbed by her past, struggling to keep it together as she confronts new disasters. Her struggle to maintain a façade of normality in the face of unfathomable circumstance is a treat to behold. Wolff and Shapiro, playing the teenage children, deliver equally compelling performances. And Ann Dowd – who we recently lauded for her work in The Handmaid’s Tale – is again captivating. Plainly put, she has a talent for portraying a character who is more than she seems. Only Gabriel Byrne seems underused. His Steve is the decent and rational man in the middle of a maelstrom. He has little to do other than be a foil for Annie. He does it well, but we don’t really get to know much about his character.
As discussed I liked the movie’s slow build up, and credit is due to director Ari Aster, who, by taking his time with his shots, very effectively builds the atmosphere of approaching menace. When he needs to, Aster is quite capable of delivering shocks, as attested by the squirming in the seats and the gasps from the audience at the screening I attended.
So all in all, you’ll be thinking this is a cracker of a horror movie, and for the most part it is, but in the end, the fact that it is indeed a supernatural horror movie robs it of something. I know that’s an odd thing to say, but because the build up is so compelling and of such quality, and because of the emphasis on psychological drama, Hereditary seems within the realm of believability. But then comes the supernatural stuff, and for all the talent of the cast and the craft of the movie makers, the story takes you to the unbelievable, and so, to the easily dismissed.
I couldn’t help thinking how much more chilling and memorable Hereditary could have been if it stuck with the story of a family traumatised by, and unravelling under, the weight of a history of mental anguish. Yes that sounds very heavy, but the film is heavy anyway. In plunging into a denouement of traditional horror fare Hereditary may well satisfy the demands of outright fans of the genre. If you’re not a horror fan though, the end might just seem a bit silly.