Our next entry in this year’s countdown of horrors old and new, famous and forgotten, is 2018’s most discussed tale of terror. Films like It and Halloween have something of the funhouse about them. We watch, in part, and often more than once, for the thrills. That may explain why, despite widespread critical acclaim and an eventual strong box office, Hereditary received an initially dismal response from audiences. Hereditary isn’t the funhouse kind of horror movie. Although it has frights, it’s more disturbing and distressing than scary. The opening doesn’t feel like a horror movie. The first act, in fact, subjects the audience to one of the most uncomfortable and traumatizing family dramas in years.

But, love it or hate it, Hereditary is difficult to forget.

Title: Hereditary

Cast and Crew

Written and directed by Ari Aster

Toni Collette as Annie Graham
Gabriel Byrne as Steve Graham
Alex Wolff as Peter Graham
Milly Shapiro as Charlie Graham
Ann Dowd as Joan
Mallory Bechtel as Bridget
Jake Brown as Brendan
David Stanley as Smiling Man

Premise:

The Graham Family have cracked; they’re sleepwalking through Hell.

The family has a history of madness, tragedy, and death, which begins before the film opens, with the passing of distant, secretive matriarch, Ellen. Annie (Toni Collette), comes to grips with the loss of a mother she never really loved. Then far worse things start happening, and nerves get rubbed raw.

The occult details start to appear in the lives of Annie, her son Peter (Alex Wolff), and her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Her husband (Gabriel Byrne) certainly feels the effects, but he stands outside of the family’s haunted lineage, quite helpless.

A grave gets desecrated. Annie discovers secrets about her mother. People are not what they appear. Are we seeing events through the lens of inherited mental illness, or is some other, very sinister thing at work?

High Points:

Thirty minutes into the film that sequence takes place, as unsettling and plot-changing as Janet Leigh’s shower was for 1960. It stays with you, and sets up, horribly, everything that will follow.

However you interpret what follows.

Low Points:

The first half allows you to really meet these characters, but the pace at which you do will not please all who watch. It also occurs against a very cluttered backdrop. The high school scenes try to draw parallels with classical Greek tragedy, but this film lacks the single narrative thread of those dramas.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 The film owes much to older occult horror, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. New director Aster treats his subject matter the way one might any realistic drama, though with a certain level of art-house pretension, and with the clear intention that the horrors represent something. It would be difficult to miss certain other influences—but that would be saying too much.

The fateful road this film takes to its conclusion remains its own.

Effects: 6/6 The film uses practical effects wherever possible, and quite effectively.

Acting: 6/6 Acting is strong, with impressive performances from the family (including newcomer Shapiro). We’re also beguiled by Ann Dowd, most familiar to contemporary audiences as the hideous Aunt Lydia in the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.

She plays someone a little different here.

Production: 6/6

Story: 5/6

Emotional Response: 5/6 Not everyone will want to see Hereditary.

Overall: 5/6 And if you do, you may not want to see it again.

In total, Hereditary receives 36/42

Final Thoughts

So when, exactly, does Hereditary take place? Costumes and set pieces appear to be contemporary, but other elements don’t quite gell. Cell phones, though present, seem stunningly underused, especially in the teen world. Peter and his friends discuss Facebook as though it were still a thing with adolescents. And yet this doesn’t appear to be the sort of stylized, temporaly uncertain world we see in It Follows or (to a lesser extent),Babadook. Are we in the recent past, perhaps a decade ago? Is Astor simply unaware of—or choosing to ignore– how contemporary teen culture works? Or are we, in the end, just supposed to accept the film’s setting on its own terms? I don’t mean to nitpick, but we are watching, after all, a film whose central conceits draw much from their contrast with consensus reality.

Like many, I found the horror scenes range from disturbing to, at least, well directed. But some people laughed at the re-release of The Exorcist, and I suspect some people will choose to disregard the dramatic depiction of a family in torment and simply laugh at the more distressing moments in this one.

September 30: Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (JD)

October 6: Suspiria (Alex)
October 7: The Seventh Victim (JD)

October 13: Friday the 13th-a “Make Me Watch It” Podcast (Blaine)
October 14: Hereditary (JD)

October 20: Hausu (Alex)
October 21: Eye of the Devil (JD)

October 27: A Quiet Place (JD)
October 28: Alone in the Dark (JD)

October 31: Halloween 2018 (JD)
Return of the Living Dead (JD)