Ari Aster’s directorial debut begins with the spitting image of Kubrikian precision, a methodical camera push where we inch ever closer to a meticulously crafted home in miniature. As the camera creeps forward into a single room of this diorama, the scene seamlessly blends into the actual home of the Graham family, revealing the bedroom of the high-school aged Peter (Alex Wolff). This moment of filmic magic is not only impressive to behold, but also clues us in that there is a malevolent force lurking in the shadows of this idyllic home, one that is observing and manipulating this family’s fate like a child playing with dolls.
The story begins with a household in mourning. Well, sort of. Annie’s mother Ellen has passed away, but her son and husband don’t seem to mind that much. Even Annie (Toni Collete) feels conflicted, this becoming apparent during her funeral speech in which she describes Ellen as a very private person whose affection came sporadically at best. Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the youngest daughter, seems to be the only one affected by the loss. She is a somewhat atypical, 13 year old girl whose presence is marked by a frequent vocal tic, and seems to be suffering from some sort of developmental disorder.
Hereditary shares common DNA with older horror faire; the methodical patience of The Shining, and the simmering paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby coming to mind. It doesn’t rely on jump-scares accompanied by ear-shattering audio cues, or random creepy imagery that’s unrelated the plot, instead laying out a tightly scripted series of events that are “explainable” by this world’s twisted logic. We are forced to watch as the Graham family slowly spins out of control, a gut wrenching tragedy sowing the seeds of distrust and discontent among its members. For a film that delves into the supernatural, the first hour or so is a methodical drama that shocks more with real-world horror than anything occult.
Toni Collete’s performance as Annie is nothing less than riveting, her grief, fear, and suffering bring the trauma to life. When proceedings finally completely lurch into the bizarre, it’s her grief-stricken desperation anchors this nightmare in the realm of reality. While it does occasionally delve into familiar genre territory such as body possession, seances, and shadowy figures in bedrooms, the true horror mostly comes from the intimacy of the setting.
Haunted house stories are nothing new, but the way Aster’s script foreshadows the horrific events that transpire in this home lends a sense of cruel inevitability to the happenings. When Annie unveils her family’s history of mental illness, it adds a layer of ambiguity and misdirection, springing the possibility of an unreliable narrator. Aster also clearly has a perfect understanding of how to build tension, particularly in the climax which patiently plays out events that we essentially know the conclusion to. This final sequence features some of the most outrageously nightmarish imagery in any horror movie in decades, with one particular shot burned into my retinas for the foreseeable future. The editing reinforces a relentlessness sense of dread, using audio cues and match-cuts to maintain the unbearable buildup while transitioning between different scenes.
Some may be offput by the sadism at work here, but there is a odd sense of satisfaction in how everything clicks into place. In more ways tha one it feels at though the Graham family is doomed to a cruel destiny outside of their control. And for this reason, the film certainly won’t be for everyone. The family drama of its first half lacks any warmth, and the second half is a gauntlet of pain. But if you’ve been craving a horror movie with the patience and craftsmanship of old that fully articulates the horror of fatalism, Heriditary is the movie you’ve been waiting for.