At its strongest, Ari Aster’s debut feature fixates upon neutral, offbeat details to the point of paralysing terror. Like the harmless clocking of one’s tongue against the roof of one’s mouth, the minute and unassuming are slowly weaponised as Hereditary’s dysfunctional family unravels into fits of paranoid suspicion.  

Aster made his directorial debut with a short nightmare, The Strange Thing About The Johnsons; a claustrophobic glimpse at family anxieties and false appearances. The pulled-in, consciously synthetic style of Johnsons forms the main impulse of Hereditary, albeit at times padded out by unnecessary nods to familiar classics.  

The family in question is the suburban Graham family. Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is an artist, who stages disquieting model scenes based on her past experiences. Her husband is stoic empath Steve (Gabriel Byrne); the lip-tensing counterbalance to Annie’s natural anxiousness. Between them, they have a daughter who sleeps outside and sketches creepy charcoal portraits, and a teenage son who smokes weed and ogles girls’ bottoms. We join the Graham family upon the funeral of Annie’s late mother, Ellen; an enigmatic woman from whom Annie has always felt distant. Emotionally detached and ever so slightly curious, Annie becomes concerned with the life her mother lead, and how far she was responsible for her own experience as a parent.

There is an insistence in Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography upon showing the deeply synthetic reality within which the Grahams exist, entertaining a constant sense of inevitability underlying the family’s increasingly fraught relations. The very opening shot gives the impression of watching a play, gliding into the interior of a dolls’ house, bridging the gap between inanimate prop and the live action cast with dreamlike ease. The result is an enduring suspicion that these people exist as part of an elaborate design; as helpless cogs in a machine whose function remains unknown.

It seems the Grahams are only partly aware of the reality they share, and the spirals of distrust spun deftly between the ensemble tap all too pertinently into anxieties of parental control and unspoken resentment. Toni Collette is an obvious standout, melding unbidden regret and desperate psychosis with an energy few actors have pulled off so frighteningly since The Babadook’s Essie Davis. Collette’s emotional helter-skelter is matched by an increasingly haggard Alex Wolff, who switches with temple-aching rapidity between paralytic fear and languid, zombie-like trauma. Molly Shapiro is a hypnotic physical presence as the thirteen-year-old Charlie; dwarfed in a sleeved hoodie, the teenager’s sunken eyes and thousand-yard stare give her the disorienting impression of appearing at once gnarled and eluded by age.

Hereditary evidently enjoys needling the grey area between psychosis and falsified threat. Moments of truly inescapable terror shift into periods of semi-lucid paranoia; exchanges that borrow amply from Rosemary’s Baby in that the exterior pleasantness always seems to be concealing some imperceptible ulterior motive. To discuss anything at length would be to risk spoiling the thrill, but suffice to say that Hereditary – at its most frightening – exploits the human tendency to find systems where none exist; to draw outlines in the amorphous haze at the end of your hallway.

Yet, Aster too often subscribes to familiar horror beats, flirting with homage in ways that fragment what is otherwise a cleverly-constructed psychological horror. This is strange, given the film works so well on its own; the dollhouse motif is continually creepy and breeds a feeling of inevitability so intense it can be paralysing. But as soon as the Kubrick-esque angles and tired symbols creep in, Hereditary finds itself sloshing in moments of wry “a-ha”, and letting on to its own, perplexing underconfidence.

This said, there are several I know of who’d equally consider this kind of comedy to work in the film’s favour. Certainly, Hereditary seems to recognise when things might be getting a little intense and offers brief reprieve by retreating into comfortable tropes. While I can feel the largest of nose-wrinkles forming at the idea of a horror (particularly one marketed beneath the banner of The Exorcist) offering ‘a break from the scary’, Hereditary breeds true fear without becoming cruel. What stumbles as an unbridled horror, then, provides at least a humanely-paced thriller, and I can think of several genre enthusiasts who’d greatly appreciate the sympathy.

But make no mistake, Hereditary continues its foreboding play far beyond the film’s closure. Though occasionally giving needlessly into overdone images, Aster dwells subtly on familial anxieties and only vaguely-recognisable images; those nighttime shadows and brief wisps we tell ourselves are products of the mind, but could just as easily be something much, much different.


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