The experience of watching Hereditary is like riding a 300-foot-tall roller coaster with a steep drop: the most excruciating, enthralling part of it is the slow creep towards the ride’s peak.
A look at director Ari Aster’s previous work (particularly the short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, which horrified people to the degree that reaction videos became a viral trend) reveals a director who delights in pulling apart the trappings of domesticity. His feature debut, though following in the footsteps of countless films that have mined the home as a source of horror, delves deeper into his personal infatuations. The film begins inside a miniature model constructed by Annie Graham (Toni Collette). Slowly, the model stirs to life, as the Graham family goes about preparing for the day. They’re dolls in Aster’s hands, powerless against what’s to come.
Familial love is supposed to be unconditional and uncomplicated, but if it doesn’t come easily, it can be a source of torment, too. The Grahams are already fractured when Hereditary begins, grappling with resentment and guilt, and the pressure boils Annie in a pot of her own emotions. She loves her family, but not enough, she thinks, or not without caveats, which are revealed part and parcel with the Graham family history.
As Annie unravels, her mild-mannered husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and her young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) all begin to crack. The family’s feelings butt against each other instead of dovetailing, and the passing of Annie’s mother wedges open a door to years of accumulated baggage — cued by Charlie’s intermittent tic-like clucking noises, which begin to seem like harbingers of doom. Tempting as it is to go into the blazing details, Hereditary is best seen as blind as possible; Aster has created a film that demands a visceral, physical response. Gasps, flinches, and screams are prompted by emotional revelations just as often as they are by gore.
The actors scream, too, and none better than Collette. She goes from brittle to volcanic in the space of an instant, frighteningly keyed into just how powerful (and destructive) a mother’s love can be. The uncertainty and unhappiness that Annie harbors are difficult to juggle while still making her at all sympathetic, but Collette manages it, giving a performance that vaults the film into an entirely new realm of anguish. Wolff, best known for his stint on Nickelodeon’s The Naked Brothers Band, gives his most impressive performance to date as a son struggling with the idea that the one person in the world who is meant to protect him might in fact be a danger to him.
If there is anything to find fault with in Hereditary, it’s in the thing that hobbles most, if not all, horror movies. The monsters that haunt us are always a little less scary when they’re brought to light — they’re their worst when left to the imagination. As the film reaches its hellish conclusion — as the roller coaster drops — it goes off the rails to a degree that’s bloodier than anything that’s preceded it, but doesn’t quite manage to match it in terms of sheer emotional horror.
Still, what horror it is. Hereditary is a movie to be watched from between your fingers, and to be carried home as a feeling of unease under your skin.
Hereditary is out now in theaters.
Karen Han is a writer based in New York City. Her work appears on Vox.com, The Atlantic, SlashFilm, and New York magazine’s Vulture.