Hereditary opens at the AMC 12 June 8.
Forgive my gloating, but I have been dying to tell you this. I saw Hereditary at its world premiere at Sundance this January, as part of the midnight movie section, and it was among the greatest cinematic experiences of my life. Director Ari Aster appeared at the screening, along with the film’s young breakout star, Milly Shapiro. (She appears sinister and unfortunate looking in the movie, but was poised, lovely and intelligent on stage.) During the screening, all of us felt genuinely afraid. No joke, I think I heard women whimpering, then giggling, then whimpering again. Watching Hereditary inspires the kind of fear that makes you irrationally check for phantom hands under your seat that might reach out and grab you.
The movie stars Toni Collette as Annie Graham, a miniatures artist who lives in a tucked-away house in Utah with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and preteen daughter Charlie (Shapiro). At the start, we see the family assemble for the funeral of Annie’s mother, who lived with the Graham family up until her death and was by all accounts a stern, imposing and altogether unpleasant woman.
All the best horror movies aren’t simply about stalking teenagers in showers or seeing creepy little children out of the corners of our eyes and then jump scare! (Although, to be clear, I love any and all jump scares. There’s no such thing as a cheap one: Every time a movie manages to startle me, I feel as though I’m getting my money’s worth.) The Shining isn’t just a movie about a spooky hotel; it’s about the looming threat of alcoholism and the revenge of the codependent. Or consider the 2015 horror classic The Witch (like Hereditary, an A24 release with a midnight premiere at Sundance). The Witch is far more about incest and sin than it is about a demon goat — but the goat helps. Finally, we have last year’s Get Out, almost a Stepford Wives parody on its surface, bolstered by perfect comedic timing and sharp political commentary.
I’m saying that Hereditary works on these elevated levels. In the opening shot, we see what looks like the inside of one of Annie’s miniatures, until the camera swoops in and Steve walks impossibly into the room to implore his son to get out of bed and get ready for his grandmother’s funeral. This strange toggling between fake and real is unlike anything I’ve seen — more than unsettling, it speaks directly to the character’s predicament. The horror in Hereditary comes from that same toggle between tragic reality and the supernatural, magical and impossible, and we’re so consumed with the family’s dread that we never question that all of it is literally and terribly happening. Aster’s script gets extra points for its audacity; the events pile on and on and unlike most horror films where so much goes unsaid, the Grahams have tongues and brains. They struggle to communicate, sure, but it’s not for lack of trying.
The early buzz for Hereditary centers on Collette, whose unraveling feels desperate and real. (Her first Oscar win? I’m calling it now.) There’s the drama at hand, obviously, but what about the domestic horror of a husband who can’t or won’t listen to you? Most of all, Hereditary is very scary, and in a different way than we’re used to. This is a brightly colored, linear fever dream where the monsters don’t lurk in shadows; they meet you in a craft store parking lot in broad daylight.