Original, ominous & overpowering, Hereditary is a horror of the unspeakable kind; one that gets under your skin in the nastiest of ways and keeps you awake at nights. Not since The VVitch have I experienced a cinema that instilled fear with such intensity, and the fact that it’s a directorial debut makes it all the more praiseworthy. Filled with dread from the first frame to the last, bolstered by outstanding performances from its talented cast, and exquisitely amplifying the foreboding aura & disquieting chill by making every single one of its aspects work in harmony, this unnerving, unsettling & uncanny portrait of a family tragedy that curdles into a horrifying nightmare is a nerve-rattling exercise in paranoia-inducing terror.
The story of Hereditary begins after the matriarch of the Graham family passes away. A secretive & private woman who had private rituals, private friends & private anxieties, she is survived by her daughter Annie, Annie’s husband Steve & two grandchildren Peter & Charlie. Her loss affects Annie & Charlie most and they both mourn in their own ways, for the former tries to come to terms with her estranged relationship with her mother by joining a support group while the latter delves deeper into her quirks. Soon enough, the family starts experiencing strange, inexplicable occurrences and unravels cryptic & increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry that have been passed through the generations of their family.
Written & directed by Ari Aster, Hereditary commences his filmmaking journey on a very strong note, and catapults him into the league of the most promising talents to surface in the industry today. After all, Aster’s first attempt at feature filmmaking yields a result that one usually expects from an auteur at the top of his game, and the restraint his direction exhibits throughout the picture further points to his prodigious powers. The decision to primarily focus on the family dynamic rather than finding ways to scare the audience is what pays huge dividends for the film in the end as Aster touches on the fundamentals of loss, grief & mourning with such care that we are already invested in the lives of every member of the Graham family before things start going awry for each one of them.
While Aster’s direction exudes confidence & composure, his writing showcases his firm understanding of the genre. The real horror isn’t actually derived from things that jump at you from the dark & out of nowhere but the uncomfortable vibe that steadily escalates to a point where the threat becomes tangible. And the latter isn’t possible unless you are on board with the characters inhabiting the story which happens only if they are interesting and their arcs are compelling. The mysterious family portrait Aster paints here is effortlessly convincing which in turn makes their predicament utterly effective & harrowing for the viewers. The final moments don’t pack as strong a punch as events preceding it and it is possibly the weakest part of the picture but on subsequent viewings, it does fit the narrative structure.
The technical aspects work in tandem to deliver a cinematic experience that’s as unique as it is unforgettable. All the set pieces are finely detailed and conceived in a way that gives the Graham family’s household the aesthetic of a dollhouse. The concise manoeuvring of the camera, pitch-perfect lighting & ingenious use of shadows, every bit of it contributes in establishing a sinister atmosphere that’s menacing & relentless. The deliberately slow & stealthy pace at which the drama unfolds & secrets unravel instils darkness of its own into its slow-burn narrative, pervading the air with an unearthly quality. Last but not the least, Colin Stetson delivers a background score so eerie in its composition, effectual in its working, and aptly intertwined with its terrific sound design that it turns many segments into bone-chilling, nightmarish scenarios.
Coming to the performances, Hereditary features Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro & Gabriel Byrne as a family haunted after the death of their matriarch. Collette delivers a show-stealing performance as Annie, delving into her psyche & rendering her emotional breakdown with such fervour & volcanic viciousness that it’s one of the finest performances of the year, and certainly the best in the career of the veteran actress. Wolff is in as Peter and though he starts silently, his act only gets better with time. Shapiro’s screen presence is freakish in itself plus it’s impossible to look elsewhere when she is on screen. Byrne on the other hand plays Steve and, with his calm showcase amidst the madness, becomes our link to the story. Even Ann Dowd makes the most of her short screen time and leaves her own little mark in the role of Joan, a support group member who befriends Joan.
On an overall scale, Hereditary is one of the most uncomfortable films I have sat through and is undoubtedly the scariest film of 2018. Devoid of all the clichés & conventions of its genre that majority of today’s filmgoers are now accustomed to, Ari Aster’s feature film debut certainly isn’t one of those easily available & equally forgettable chillers that mostly rely on & often resort to dull, predictable & largely ineffective moment-to-moment audience-pleasing shocks. Instead, it’s one of those rarest of gems that pushes the horror genre forward by stretching its boundaries. An impressive amalgamation of assured direction, deft writing, impeccable cinematography, top-notch performances, methodical editing, neat sound design & spine-tingling soundtrack, Hereditary isn’t just one of the finest films of the year or the decade but also ranks amongst the most accomplished & genuinely terrifying works of its genre. In short, a haunting masterpiece for the ages. Strongly recommended.