A24’s latest art-house horror film Hereditary is supremely unsettling and anchored by one of the best performances of the year in any film, horror or otherwise, from Toni Collette. What follows is my spoiler-lite review.

The A24 hype train is rather familiar by now: produce a slow-moving horror movie more indebted to Polanski and Kubrick than Carpenter and Craven, put it in film festivals to build up word of mouth among cinephiles, drop a wildly misleading trailer that says little about the plot and instead compresses all of the film’s conventionally scary parts into two and half minutes, and watch as the general audience and film nerds duke it out on Rotten Tomatoes.

See: The Witch, It Comes At Night.

Now we have Hereditary, the debut feature from writer-director Ari Aster. It centers on the Graham family – mom Annie (Collette), dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne), girl-obsessed teen son Peter (Alex Wolff), and 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). At the start of the film, we find them on their way to grandma’s funeral, an event which has Annie torn up inside. On the one hand, she loved her mother. On the other hand, her mom didn’t always make that easy. This leads her to deliver a mixed eulogy, referring to her mom as “secretive” and “stubborn” while also sometimes capable of being the sweetest woman in the world.

Annie’s not the only one affected by the death. While Steve and Peter take it in stride, Charlie, an already withdrawn and strange kid given to making weird drawings, feels abandoned. She was grandma’s little girl. “Who will take care of me now?” Charlie later wonders aloud to her gobsmacked mom.

And for around an hour Hereditary is simply a movie about a family grieving. Take away Aster’s methodical camera slowly peeking around corners and Colin Stetson’s ominous, minimalistic musical score and it would almost be an Oscar movie, with one ready-made awards clip after another for Collette’s heartbreaking performance, particularly when she reluctantly bares her soul for strangers at a self-help group for people coping with death. As Chris Stuckmann argued on YouTube, “There’s something about the core of this movie that feels real.”

Except there’s always something horror-related playing on the edges of the story. A relatively early moment of Annie briefly glimpsing what appears to be her mom’s ghost in the corner of a room suggests something supernatural. An Omen-esque moment of a bird mysteriously flying straight into a window around Charlie also strikes a horror chord. And Annie’s dayjob as an artist specializing in miniature tableaus constantly threatens to become something more significant.

But you’re never sure where exactly Hereditary is going with any of it. For example, the inciting incident – won’t spoil what happens, simply acknowledging something does happen – which kicks the plot into its second gear literally left me covering my opened mouth in shock. Once Ann Dowd enters the picture at almost exactly the one-hour mark, it’s almost disappointing when more familiar horror elements start to come into play. Somewhat sadly, it all builds to the kind of third act reveals we’ve seen many times before, but never quite like this.

However, Hereditary true strength is not what it ultimately does with the story but in how it chooses to tell it. Aster and his clearly talented team of collaborators have produced a film which is pretty much weaponized dread, a spiritual cousin in that way to It Follows, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Witch, even mother!. Any other horror movie can give us jump scares; very few can give us something as profound and real as Hereditary’s dinner scene when the family finally airs their grievances with one another in the most cut-to-the-core fashion imaginable.

This, again, is another showcase scene for Collette.

Hereditary is at least Collette’s third time playing the mom in a horror movie, after Sixth Sense and Fright Night, but it’s her first time being the true star of the show. As The LA Times put it, Collette plays “Annie like an instrument going slowly out of tune, chattering away with mounting desperation, exposing more and more nerve endings in every scene.” Byrne, channeling a bit of his In Treatment character, does his best as the increasingly concerned husband, and Wolff and Shapiro are solid as the guilt-stricken teen and troubled child, respectively. But this is a tour de force, showcase piece for Collette. Let the Oscar campaign begin now. After Get Out, we can’t discount her just because she’s in a horror movie.

THE BOTTOM LINE

An uncommonly unsettling family drama that happens to eventually remember it’s a horror movie and puts Toni Collette through the emotional ringer, transfixing us in the process.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS

  1. A24’s horror trailers remind me of AMC’s old purposefully incoherent Mad Men previews.
  2. About those third act reveals: Hereditary is the type of film which actually improves with a second viewing because you see just how many clues are actually sprinkled throughout the first two acts.
  3. What are the chances the Academy ignores BOTH Emily Blunt for A Quiet Place and Collette for this?
  4. My A24 horror/thriller rankings, favorite to least favorite – Hereditary, Green Room, The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, It Comes At Night.
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Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

11 Comments

  1. I am really looking forward to watching this, as I thoroughly enjoyed The Witch, and It Follows. I have to catch up though, because I have not watched The Killing of Sacred Deer, or The Blackcoat’s Daughter, both of which I heard were really good.

    I’ve heard of The Green Room but was reluctant to watch it because I thought it might be too gory. I was mostly just mystified by the trailers for It Comes at Night.

    Reply

    1. ” thoroughly enjoyed The Witch, and It Follows”

      Then you’re going to be in good hands with Hereditary. If you liked those films and don’t feel the same about Hereditary I’ll be very surprised. Incidentally, Hereditary sort of owes its life to The Witch or, more accurately, one of The Witch’s producers. Hereditary was shopped all around town for years before it finally landed with a Witch producer who then took it to A24 and got Ari Astra the funding he needed to get going.

      “The Killing of Sacred Deer, or The Blackcoat’s Daughter, both of which I heard were really good.”

      Sacred Deer is…weird. It’s from the same guy who made The Lobster, and he has this signature style of treating his characters as practical non-humans with cold, stilted dialogue and line deliveries. That’s what makes it all the more effective when those characters eventually, but only briefly break free from that and display something more recognizably human. However, I don’t really enjoy doing that dance with him, and Sacred Deer is just so completely not for me. I appear to be in the minority on that, though.

      Blackcoat’s Daughter is another one of Oz Perkins’ art-house horror flicks, along with I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. He does the slow-burn like no one else in horror these days, but that means his movies better damn well pay off your patience. Blackcoat, for me, does a better job of that than I Am the Pretty Thing.

      “I’ve heard of The Green Room but was reluctant to watch it because I thought it might be too gory.”

      Yeah…you’re not wrong. There are some definite moments of violence, but, honestly, after seeing Upgrade last week everything in Green Room seems tame by comparison. Green Room is probably the realest movie in the entire bunch we’ve been talking about because there’s absolutely nothing supernatural about it. It’s really just the story of a punk rock band who end up in a neo-nazi club at the absolute wrong time and eventually have to match wits with a very-against-type but absolutely brilliant Patrick Stewart.

      “I was mostly just mystified by the trailers for It Comes at Night.”

      A classic case of “appreciate more than enjoy” for me. A Quiet Place does a lot of the same stuff, minus the paranoia angle, to far more conventionally entertaining results.

      Reply

  2. I got to be honest although I watch horror movies I do have reservations about this. Ok Toni Collette was in the Sixth Sense which offered us something fresh in this genre. However the press I think are not helping this film. The gist of reviews I have read is “I dont want to give things away but watch it although its deeply unsettling”. The rest of the time I see a photo of Toni Collette ugly crying. So not sure I want to fork out my hard earned notes and spend an evening watching that.

    Reply

    1. I get your frustration, and I too have tried to refrain from spoilers. It’s not me trying to be too precious about it, like WB was with its Blade Runner: 2049 press gag, but this is truly a situation where the not knowing actually makes Hereditary better. I’ll say that beyond the death of the granda another tragedy befalls the family 30 minutes in, and you’ll never see it coming.

      Collette doesn’t ugly cry the entire time. She runs the gamut of emotions you can expect from a woman grieving a tragedy. One of the highlights for me is actually 15 minutes into the story when she starts out coldly relating the specifics of her mother’s death and tortured life to a self-help group for people coping with death. By the end of her sharing with the group she’s fighting back tears and relating how frustrated she is that she’s so sad over the death of such a horrible mother or that she feels she can’t share her frustration with her family because they wouldn’t understand it. Yes, later in the movie she does the ugly cry face, but most of the time it’s far more nuanced than watching Collette simply turn it up to 11. It’s more about watching her build up to that, to the point that when she does reach her loudest expressions of grief it’s almost as effective as Emily Blunt’s first cry in Quiet Place (emphasis on “almost” because nothing can top Emily Blunt in that movie).

      What this movie is – it’s not a horror movie in the traditional sense. Rosemary’s Baby is everyone’s go-to comparison, but for its first hour it has more in common with The Ice Harvest and Mike Leigh films than anything else. It’s a family drama with occasional hints of a creeping terror, and then in the second hour it remembers it’s a horror movie. Oddly, that’s the section which didn’t work quite as well for me because, frankly, I felt like I’d seen most of it before. More than once, I flashed back to The Witch, The Conjuring, Insidious, and Sinister and thought, “Didn’t they do this kind of better.” But by then I was so invested in the characters that I was hooked on the journey they were taking.

      I’ll end with this if you’re still on the fence – Have you seen It Follows, The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Rosemary’s Baby, or any of those other classic or recent cerebral-leaning, slow-moving horror films? If so, did you like them? If yes, you’ll probably appreciate Hereditary. If not, it might not be your kind of film.

      Reply

      1. Thanks that is helpful, I did really like It Follows so maybe I will give it a go and will let you know if I regret it.

  3. Like It Follows and Killing of a Sacred Deer? Ehhhh maybe I’ll wait for the home version then.

    Reply

    1. Oh, it has very little in common with Deer. They share the same distributor and leisurely pace, but they are otherwise very different movies. Which is good news for me because as I wrote elsewhere in the comments I don’t like Killing of a Sacred Deer. As for It Follows, the similarity is taking a film school approach to a familiar genre. There, someone pulled more from classic and European cinema and applied it to the slasher. Here, Ari Aster took haunted house tropes and applied them to what is otherwise a suffocating indie drama about a family dealing with tragedy.

      But I guess the larger point is we have had plenty of artsy, slow burn horror movies lately, from Oz Perkins films like Blackcoat’s Daughter to A24’s now-yearly offering to It Follows. By now, if you’re a horror fan you probably know if the artsy stuff is up your alley or not. Personally, I usually struggle to completely get into these kinds of movies. It took repeat viewings for me to truly appreciate It Follows, for example. Hereditary, however, is the arguably the best of the bunch.

      Reply

      1. Sure, it’s a hard sub-genre to actually get right and when it goes wrong it’s pretty painful to try to sit through.

        Loosely related, you ever see Shelley? Not sure if it’s on Netflix still.

      2. Actually, to be honest, I haven’t even heard of Shelley. What is it?

      3. Some strange Danish horror film that I think would fall into this same category. Not not openly happens but it manages to be creepy somehow anyway.

  4. […] of right now 9 of the top 13 films at the domestic box office are either female-led (Ocean’s 8, Hereditary, Adrift, Book Club, Hotel Artemis, Life of the Party, Breaking In) or co-led (Overboard, A Quiet […]

    Reply

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