Editor’s note: This Hereditary review is entirely spoiler-free.
I saw Hereditary, the terrifying directorial debut by writer-director Ari Aster, during its midnight premiere at the 2018 SXSW Festival and Conferences. Afterwards, I had to call a friend to calm me down and I turned on all of my bedroom lights and put on a Disney music playlist to ward off the film’s many disturbing images from my dreams.
I found the film moving and terrifying in a way that most modern horror films aren’t.
Without giving too much away in this Hereditary review (because the film’s shocking start really begins 30 minutes into it), the film follows the Graham family immediately after the death of their 78-year-old grandmother. We soon learn that grandma was secretive and “not all there” when she died, hinting at a possibly genetic mental illness.
The Graham family itself is a bit off-kilter. They live in a large house in what looks like the Pacific Northwest (even though the film was shot in Utah). The mother, Annie (played compellingly by Toni Collette), crafts autobiographical dioramas in her second-floor art studio. Charlie, the younger daughter, prefers sleeping in the family treehouse and makes disturbing figurines out of spare parts and wire.
Peter, the family’s teenage son, seems disconnected and angry in a way not entirely explained by his adolescence. Their loving father, Steve, a professional psychiatrist, seems unable to grasp the tension bubbling just beneath his family’s surface.
Immediately following the family’s loss, strange things start happening. Annie attends a grief support group in secret and admits that she’s not particularly sad about her mother’s death. Grandma’s bedroom door is found open even though no one has gone in there. Charlie and Peter see strange light at home and school.
Although a haunting seems afoot, we soon learn the family is actually more haunted by their relationships with each other. Peter resents having to look after his socially awkward kid sister. Annie and her husband both hide details of their lives from each other. Charlie’s creepy line drawings disturb her dad.
And this is where the film really finds its strength. Superb acting and sharp writing emotionally invest us in the family’s dynamics before descending into full-tilt horror. And when the horror really begins, it metaphorically illustrates the characters’ strained relationships, often in deeply unsettling ways.
Aster uses slow tracking dolly shots, eyebrow-raising background details and a disquieting score by composer Colin Stetson to build a relentless sense of menace and dread, even when nothing particularly scary is happening on-screen.
We don’t want to say too much more, lest perceptive readers latch onto telling details and unravel the dark mystery at the film’s core. But in the end, Annie’s slow-burn investigation into her family’s dark past results in a series of deeply emotional confessions, unexpected trauma and terrifying visuals that haunt the film until its final frame and will haunt you long after you head home to sleep.