October Spotlight: Hereditary

If you want a film that will shake you to the core with fear, Hereditary will most definitely do the trick. When I watched it over the summer, I had a hard time walking back to my car afterwards in the dark, and could barely fall asleep that night. It is the perfect horror movie to watch with all the lights turned off in your house, and popcorn to nervously eat as the fear creeps into your nightmares without you realizing it at first. In a year with a severe lack of interesting entries into the genre (does anyone even remember that Slenderman or Truth or Dare came out), Hereditary shows that the genre can still make effective scares using old tricks, drawing influences from the classics and applying a fresh coat of paint that makes the film a unique force to be reckoned with.

Directed by newcomer Ari Aster, Hereditary is best watched knowing as little as possible about it. All you need to know is that it follows a grieving family after their maternal grandmother dies, and all the weird supernatural happenings that follow. It stars Toni Colette, Gabriel Burn, Alex Wolff, and Milly Schapiro as the main family members. Each performance is on point, particularly Colette as the mother, Annie. She plays a character that, on paper, is incredibly unsympathetic; she is shown to be detached from her mother, distant from her son, and a little on the obsessive and selfish side. Her performance, though, allows you to sympathize with her pain, and understand why she acts the way she does, which makes it all the more unsettling when things go awry and she begins losing herself.

Milly Schapiro as Charlie is also extremely unnerving. The creepy kid is a well-known trope in horror movies, but Schapiro manages to put a fresh twist on it by making it clear from the start that something’s wrong with her. There’s no deception in her character; she talks strangely, always with a foreboding tone, dresses awkwardly, and always has an unsettlingly blank look in her eyes, like she’s barely attached to this world. You never know how knowledgeable about the supernatural occurrences she actually is, which makes you wonder whether she’s a victim or a perpetrator.

My favorite aspect of Hereditary, and why I think it is so scary, is how the film gives you the sense that there’s some plan, some sort of construction going on in the background, but slowly tears down that sense of orderliness and logic as the story progresses. The concept of structure is established in the first shot of the film, when you see Annie’s model houses; these pieces are clearly meticulously constructed by an outside force. As the film goes on, however, Annie and others begin to slowly have their autonomy taken away from them, and the film makes it difficult to tell whether it is because they were naturally insane, or if the supernatural entity is dictating their behavior. By the end of the film, that orderliness from the model houses is completely destroyed, as the characters’ control over their own lives is definitively wrenched away from them.

This is where the title comes in; this supernatural curse, and resulting insanity, is hereditary. It came from Annie’s mother, who died before the film even began. When you realize this, you learn that the characters are doomed from the beginning, which makes it so special and unnerving. Many horror movies draw upon the premise that the villain is disconnected from the victims until they wander into a haunted house, or touch a Ouija board. Hereditary, on the other hand, is about how your own genetic makeup, or family history, can rob you of your own identity, and control your life more than you would like to admit. It is still the fear of the unknown that drives this film, but it is much more a personal take on the worn-out concept. Ultimately, the most threatening and destructive enemy in this movie is not the mysterious supernatural entity, but rather what you do not know about yourself.

The horror is also amplified by the fantastic presentation. The film utilizes these excruciatingly long, creeping shots that make you wonder what is stalking these characters in the background, and plays with your sense of perception by making you all too aware of how limited the frame is. Some of the most important events happen off screen, and builds up tension by forcing you to imagine what had just occurred. This plays into the fear of the unknown wonderfully. Furthermore, the color palette is dark and grimy, utilizing harsh lighting whenever it can and dulling the daytime shots. The music is perfect, and I will forever be impressed by how composer Colin Stetson made beyond eerie noises come out of a saxophone.

In terms of flaws, I will say the story and lore can be confusing and is not always explained very well. I think you can argue that this plays into the overall “fear of the unknown” angle, but the film does make an effort to explain it on multiple instances. To fix this, I would have entirely cut the explanations and finding more creative ways around the exposition, or making the explanations more coherent. This could easily be elaborated upon in a sequel, or an accompanying lore book if Ari Aster is up for writing one, but it is not such a huge problem that it ruins the experience. I will also say that it could be considered slow at first, and perhaps slightly confusing to those just looking for a fun horror movie, but I would still say it is worth checking out, even if that may bother you.

Overall, Hereditary is perfect if you want a well-acted, well-shot horror movie that has a phenomenal grasp on why the fear of the unknown parts of yourself, and the fear of losing control to those unknown parts, is so pervasive and paralyzing to the average human. Definitely watch it if you want to be scared this Halloween.