Movie review: Hereditary taps the dark side of the psyche

With Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster debuts as a master of dread, creating a “nightmare with its own logic.” Courtesy A24 Films With Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster debuts as a master of dread, creating a “nightmare with its own logic.” Courtesy A24 Films

Ari Aster’s Hereditary may be the best, scariest, and most effective American horror film in years. Not because it has the loudest scares, not because its ghosts have the creepiest faces, and not because its deaths are the most gruesome (though it does have its share). Writer-director Aster’s feature film debut builds dread at an astounding rate thanks to masterful pacing, establishing the thematic foundation that disturbs viewers before they are able to make literal sense of anything, and by living up to its foreshadowing with sequences and images that are far more frightening than you anticipated. It promises to be the most terrifying, unpredictable movie you’ve ever seen—which, let’s be honest, most horror movies do—then exceeds even that lofty promise.

Hereditary
R, 123 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

The word-of-mouth campaign following Hereditary’s debut at Sundance has been the stuff of film festival legend, as critics and audiences struggled to describe it without giving anything away. The truth is that it is very easy to summarize what happens, but Hereditary is a journey best taken alongside its characters, not above them. Some of the things experienced by the Graham family are retribution for their own mistakes, while some are the result of manipulations they cannot perceive, so they don’t know whether to confront or flee. Would either do any good? Do they have any free will at all that might alter the outcome, or are they trapped?

All of these questions have answers, but Hereditary is not a puzzle box. It is a nightmare with its own logic. The film follows the Graham family after the death of secretive grandmother Ellen. Her daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), has worked hard to keep the family together despite numerous tragedies and a history of mental illness on her side. Husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is supportive and son Peter (Alex Wolff) is attempting to live a normal teenage life despite all of the strangeness surrounding him. Their daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), has numerous issues, ranging from allergies to general awareness, almost as though she does not fully belong.

This is not much of a description, but what follows must be seen to be believed. There are several devastating events that in a lesser film would have simply been too much, but Aster understands how to keep us off-kilter while giving us proper time to react before things really spiral toward their conclusion.

The most effective horror films always contain some kernel of relatable anxiety in the minds of the audience that mutates into the story we see on the screen. In Hereditary, there are numerous such examples: Do our parents’ identities, flaws and outright sins transfer to us? Do the fabulist stories we concoct in our youth reflect some truth, and do the inconsistencies we overlook or explain away as adults contain something more sinister? Perhaps the eeriest thing that Aster pinpoints here is the vacant yet joyful expression of those experiencing spiritual elation. The only thing preventing me from recommending Hereditary to everyone is how truly disturbing it can be, but the film is an instant horror classic of the highest caliber.


Playing this week

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Incredibles 2, Ocean’s 8, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Upgrade

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Adrift, A Quiet Place, Action Point, Avengers: Infinity War, Breaking In, Book Club, Deadpool 2, Hotel Artemis, Incredibles 2, Ocean’s 8, Show Dogs, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Upgrade

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

Adrift, Avengers: Infinity War, Book Club, Claire’s Camera, Deadpool 2, First Reformed, Isle of Dogs, Solo: A Star Wars Story

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