When I first saw Poltergeist back in 1982, I had to sleep with the lights on, and with the closet doors firmly closed. I ran through darkened rooms, knowing that I was safe in the light. Ever since, I have loved the feel of a good, suspenseful, horror movie, that makes your mind play tricks on you and has you peering into the shadows to make sure there isn’t anything there, waiting for you. A film that turns your own mind against you, and throws reason out the window to make room for the baser instinctive feeling of fear that has kept our species alive for so many thousands of years. Sometimes things go bump in the night, and sometimes they go bump in your mind.
Hereditary opens with a funeral, and we see a family in mourning. Annie (Toni Collette) has just lost her mother. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is checking in to make sure that everyone is okay. There is a numbness in the faces of children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and there is the sense that where there should be the sadness of the loss of a family member, there is, instead, confusion of what emotions should be felt. As the film progresses, the dysfunction of the family becomes revealed. The tense interactions have been building for years before their grandmother ever passed away. There are strained relationships, there is awkward discomfort between people who are living together, but are not really connected. That interplay makes the ensuing events even more jarring. The surreal nature of the players in the tale, add to the jarring events to come.
I went into the movie hoping to not be disappointed. The previews made the film look intriguing to me, and it certainly did not follow my expectations, but I am very glad for that development. The tension starts from the interactions of the family coming home from the funeral, and that’s also the first time we begin to feel that there is something more going on than the story of loss. Director Ari Aster, who also wrote the film, does an impressive job of slowly ramping up the tension, making the viewer strain to figure out what is real and what is happening in the minds of the characters we’re watching.
The sound design is exceptionally well done, and I highly suggest seeing this film in a theater because of the way the soundtrack, and noticeable lack of, play into the escalating unease. At the showing I watched, there was a noticeable sound of someone reaching into their popcorn bag, then stopping because they realized that they were the only sound at that moment. The collective intakes of breath made by the viewers gave a sense of shared dread, which made the film that much more effective. In addition, the cinematography was superb. Aster used his camera work and framing in creative ways that added a layer of depth and sometimes misdirection to the action.
Annie is a miniature model maker, and the camera movements make you wonder sometimes if you are looking at a real scene or one of her detailed recreations. His writing wove a tale that was inescapable. Brief moments of dialogue which gave troves of exposition and background detail. Tidbits of information that seemed mundane until later revealed to be major details. Aster did a fine job of clueing the viewer in to some of these things after the fact, but it was in post-viewing discussions with other reviewers that we realized how layered and nuanced the film truly was.
The acting was also exceptionally well done. Toni Collette turns in a fantastic performance of a woman who is tormented by the grief of her losses, as well as the loss of her sanity. Gabriel Byrne is a stoic rock trying to keep his family together as their lives slip into darkness, but even that rock crumbles, and seeing the conflict of doing what he feels is best for his family, despite the toll it is taking on them is impressive. Alex Wolff plays the eldest son Peter as the sullen, angry teen that his family cannot reach, but slowly reveals the reasons that he has grown that way. His moments in the car at the pivotal midpoint of the film are eerily well done, and all without words. Finally, Milly Shapiro as Charlie, turning in an impressive performance as the creepy, weird outsider kid. Though she has less screen time in the film than the trailer would lead you to think, her time is well used, and Shapiro does a very fine job in upping the uncomfortable weirdness.
This is not a blood and guts horror movie. Not the typical, ham-fisted gore-fest that so many horror films seem to be. Hereditary is a masterful work of suspense and creepiness. This is a film that will leave you wondering at the end of it if what you saw was what really happened, or if it as all the imaginings of a strained and broken mind. I’m still not entirely sure, and I want to go back to see what I missed. I highly recommend coming along!
Synopsis: When the matriarch of the Graham family passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry.
Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Stars: Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro
Runtime: 2 Hours, 7 Minutes