It’s that special time of year again, when cinephiles gather and sing the praises of the newest arrival to the independent horror scene. You’ll see phrases such as “Scariest film since ‘The Exorcist’” and “A terrifying masterclass of horror film-making” being tossed around by critics as movie geeks cry tears of joy at the realization that their favorite genre lives on.
I only know this because I feel the exact same way. At the risk of sounding overly macho, horror movies don’t typically scare me — even films considered to be top-tier nightmare fuel fail to send a shiver down my spine. But that isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the genre: It’s possibly my favorite type of film.
Horror provides a nearly boundless tolerance for experimentation, and the potential to subvert tropes and combine subgenres only grows with time. Like all the best art, horror taps into a core human emotion, and for that reason it should stay relevant for the foreseeable future.
From a financial standpoint, horror films function as cash cows. Considering the budgets given to most horror films released over the past decade average under $20 million, the likelihood of this business model failing anytime soon — especially adding recent success stories, such as “Get Out” and “A Quiet Place,” into the equation — is slim to none.
Conversely, it’s easy to picture an oversaturated landscape ridden with sequels, desperately following the latest trends to make a quick profit. However, “Hereditary” proves that the horror genre not only strives to bring continuously fresh perspectives to the table, but benefits from taking such risks by allowing new voices, such as director Ari Aster, to join the conversation.
Like many others, I discovered Aster through his short film “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons,” a satirical, unnerving story about a man involved in an incestuous relationship with his father. Despite its controversial subject matter, the short provides quite a bit of context for “Hereditary,” establishing the filmmaker’s visual and narrative style.
While Aster certainly declared himself a rising talent with his short films, I could never have predicted the filmmaker’s debut feature film would earn a place among the scariest films of the decade.
The plot of “Hereditary” revolves around actress Toni Collette’s character Annie Graham, a woman coming to terms with the recent death of her mother and the supernatural events that haunt her family as a result. I’ve left this synopsis intentionally vague — venturing into the film with as little knowledge as possible only adds to the scares hidden up its sleeves.
While I’m sticking true to my words that I’m not scared by horror films, “Hereditary” affected me in a way only a select few accomplish nowadays — it disturbed me. When I say “disturbed,” I don’t mean a simple wince or momentarily fright in a dark theater: This movie really got under my skin, and for a film of this kind, that is the highest of compliments.
On a technical level, “Hereditary” has few flaws. The performances, primarily from perennial standout Collette, often walk the line between heartbreaking and horrifying, never slipping into unbelievability. In fact, the film doesn’t immediately venture into outright horror, and functions perfectly as an off-kilter family drama for the first hour or so before creeping into supernatural territory.
Aster’s secret weapon behind the horror of “Hereditary” is characterization, frequently ignored by lesser projects in favor of creature design or gore. While “Hereditary” doesn’t shy away from graphic images of violence, Aster gives the lead characters enough time to breathe, so that, when terror does strike, the victims are more than two-dimensional, unsympathetic archetypes — they’re real people.
As with many memorable horror films, “Hereditary” employs terror as a tool to enhance its storytelling. While appearing to be a shock-fest on the surface, the themes of grief, shame and trauma continually surface throughout the two-hour runtime.
The plot mechanics are meticulously constructed, and Aster intentionally leaves some of the more abstract elements unexplained, creating questions that linger after your first viewing. The director seems content with laying out the puzzle pieces for the audience to solve, rather than spoon-feeding them the answers, an attribute that builds as the film progresses.
It would be impossible to discuss “Hereditary” without mentioning the relentlessly brooding atmosphere. Unexpected moments of surreal humor and a nerve-wracking soundtrack coalesce into a profoundly upsetting work of fiction that feels far too tangible. In terms of pacing and tone, the movie inspires a more than passing resemblance to “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Shining.”
On a similar note, the director listed the film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Carrie” as a direct influence in a recent interview. “The films that really affected me as a kid were the ones that did not allow me to move on,” said Aster. “‘Carrie’ was a film whose images really haunted me as a kid.”
“I feel like there are a lot of images in ‘Hereditary’ where, because [‘Carrie’] had such a deep effect on me, I don’t think I could make a horror film where I’m not in some way recalling [‘Carrie’].”
Following his inspirations, Aster lulls the audience into a sense of false security before flipping the tables in the third act, building to a horrific conclusion chock-full of imagery so sickening and bizarre that its guaranteed to haunt you long after the credits roll.
“Hereditary” is by far the scariest film of the year, and while I’d argue it’s far from one of the scariest films of all-time — as stated by a critic writing for The Guardian — Aster’s debut cements itself as a staple of the modern horror genre. If nothing else, “Hereditary” raises the bar for future horror movies, though right now it’s difficult to imagine anything more insane and frightening than this.