Horror is a genre that often lends itself to formula — people just aren’t that hard to scare. The horror film typically operates under an unspoken contract between the filmmakers and their audience: You may go see the most recent installment of the “Scream,” “Halloween” or “Saw” franchises and, for about an hour and a half, you’ll be treated to an adrenaline rush courtesy of a collection of tried and true horror tropes. The film will fall into a familiar rhythm, and the beats the story hits will serve to both unnerve the audience while maintaining a healthy degree of separation. And what does the filmmaker gain from this contract? They get to refine these types of films to a science and pump out yearly installments ad infinitum (2017’s “Jigsaw,” for example, marked the 8th installment in the blockbuster “Saw” franchise). It’s by no means a slight against those films, as they occupy their own niche within the state of modern cinema; these films are sure to entertain, shock and most importantly, scare.
Ari Aster’s directorial debut “Hereditary” is not one of those films. It did not scare me — it shook me to my core. The film tells the story of the Graham family, whose lives are turned upside down when Ellen Graham, the family’s cold, ritualistic matriarch, dies, leaving behind boxes filled with secrets that will haunt her grieving family. If this sounds vague, that’s because this film evades description. It knowingly takes the aforementioned agreement between filmmaker and audience and tears it to shreds, following no familiar rhythm and actively subverting classic horror tropes. The result is a visceral, disturbing film that will stay with audiences long after the credits roll.
While the film provides gore and shocking images abound, Aster’s true strength lies in his ability to make familiar things seem unspeakably terrifying. Toni Collette (“Please Stand By”) delivers a truly earthshaking performance as Annie, Ellen’s grief-stricken daughter and a mother of two. In one particularly unsettling dinner table scene, Collette shows her acting chops as she jolts between overwhelming grief and blinding, animalistic rage. Her unhinged, manic face, outlined by the dim flicker of candlelight, is one of the film’s most unnerving images.
The film is further bolstered from an impressive display of cinematic ingenuity from Aster, who proves himself as an important new name not just within the horror genre, but for film as a whole. In almost every regard, from soundtrack to cinematography, “Hereditary” manages to impress with its inventiveness. One of Aster’s greatest triumphs is how well he understands the power of the viewer’s imagination, often demonstrating an uncanny ability to decide what to show the audience and what to keep hidden. While Aster does eventually show the audience many of these truly gruesome and disturbing images, he masterfully builds suspense leading up to it.
For all its disturbing imagery and terror-inducing moments, perhaps the scariest part of the film is that at its core, the true “monster” of the film is something decidedly real. Much like 2014’s “The Babadook,” which used the image of an eight-foot tall man-creature stalking a woman and her son as an analog for grief and despair, “Hereditary” makes similar symbolic overtures. Even when the film does stretch its legs and reach into more outlandish territory, the center of what makes it so profoundly upsetting feels decidedly real, leaving the audience with the creeping fear that maybe this could happen to them. Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and maybe — no matter how much we may struggle — we can’t ever escape what we inherit.