Film Review: Hereditary

Hereditary is a sometimes exceedingly uncomfortable horror-drama with stars unfamiliar within the genre, a doomy sense of mostly-sustained menace and a series of twists and turns that make it damn hard to talk about.

It’s unusual to see this sort of thing at cinemas unless it’s part of an established series (like a Saw or Paranormal Activity), and ads tend to shy away from using the supposedly embarrassing ‘H Word’, but make no mistake: writer/director Ari Aster’s feature début is a horror movie, and one that hits awfully close to home. Why? Well, it’s about family, of course.

The Grahams are introduced on the day of grandma’s funeral, and immediately we’re thrown into the uneasy deep end as mum Annie (Toni Collette), dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne), older son Peter (Alex Wolff) and odd 13 year old Charlie (young Broadway star Milly Shapiro) struggle to deal with their grief — or blank lack of it. Annie’s mother was difficult and semi-estranged, and we’re allowed glimpses of what went on in Annie’s troubled past in her artwork: strange dioramas that seem like they might have lives of their own.

She’s puzzled about her inability to feel sadness (Collette’s scene at a support group is one of her first near-showstoppers here), and we’re also allowed privileged perspectives into Charlie’s apparent supernatural visions. Shapiro (a horror movie fan whose distinctive look is accentuated and somewhat exploited by this director) is particularly strong here, and as it’s her first film this seems even more remarkable.

Later the focus shifts to Peter, who must stop being a druggy dope and step up to become the target of both his mother’s anguish and what could be paranormal events, some of which are pretty bloody nightmarish. However, Wolff’s committed, unsettlingly likeable performance is somewhat compromised by the way this one, as expected, goes off the rails, and its head, into the final act.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot here to like: Byrne (mostly on hand as a voice of increasingly futile reason), Shapiro, Wolff and Ann Dowd (a.k.a. Aunt Lydia from TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale) are all strong, and Collette is almost too good, even as Aster’s script starts to go nuts. Her big blow-up at the dinner table about halfway through is shockingly brilliant, and reinforces the fact that this is one movie which is more horrific when it isn’t falling all over itself to be uncanny. Yes, in the end it’s not the occult and the unknown that we should fear, but our families and ourselves.

Rated MA. Hereditary is in cinemas now.

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