Summer's Scariest Movie Is Here: A Squeamish Person's Guide to 'Hereditary'

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Milly Shapiro plays the character Charlie in the new horror film 'Hereditary.' A24

Hereditary is a fearsome new horror film that's being marketed—perhaps accurately—as the scariest movie of 2018. Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne and the young Milly Shapiro, it's a deeply unsettling plunge into the harrowing abyss of familial terror.

If you love horror movies, you've probably already purchased your tickets. If you're afraid of horror, or if you simply want to know why this is one being hyped as like nothing you've seen before, you probably have questions. Either way, we're here to help with some non-spoiler-y answers.

What's the big deal about this movie?

Hereditary is directed by Ari Aster. It's being hailed by critics as the scariest movie of the year, which it probably is: The film establishes a mood of unspeakable dread in its opening moments, in which we see a family mourning the loss of its emotionally distant matriarch, Ellen, and the tension doesn't let until its gruesome denouement. Aster's direction—and his remarkable eye for morbid visual flourishes that stick with you long after it ends—seems particularly impressive, considering this is his first feature film.

I hate scary movies. Should I go see Hereditary?
No.

Actually, I like smart horror movies. I just hate the stupid, gory ones.
Oh! In that case, yes, go see it.

I liked Get Out!
Cool. But this movie is very different, both in subject and in tone. With Get Out, which had a lot of humor, the scariest part of the movie was the reality of racism.

What's the plot?
It's about a family of four—mom (Toni Collette), dad (Gabriel Byrne), older brother (Alex Wolff), troubled little sister (Milly Shapiro)—who become unmoored and terrorized by a violent supernatural force after a death in the family. (The Handmaid Tale's Ann Dowd also appears as a grieving grandmother who befriends Collette's character.) The horror intensifies when another family member is killed in a horrible accident. It's hard to say more without going into spoiler territory. But suffice it to say there's a séance that goes horribly wrong and very upsetting uses of a treehouse.

Why is it called Hereditary?
One of the major themes is the sense that these people are cursed because of unsettling secrets embedded in their family history. The horror also incorporates unspoken resentments and regrets between loved ones; Collette's character, for instance, struggles to reconcile her grief with anger at her deceased mom.

OK, but what makes it so scary?
On a psychological level, the film taps into primal anxieties about the weight of family trauma, grief and curses passed from generation to generation. On a more visceral and cinematic level, Hereditary employs some truly blood-chilling visual reveals—headless corpses, levitating chracters possessed by the dead—which gradually bring the film's domestic horror to a nightmarish peak. There's also Collette's outright harrowing performance, and the musical score by Colin Stetson, which is laden with evil.

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Milly Shapiro plays the character Charlie in the new horror film 'Hereditary.' A24

I'm afraid of jump scares. Are there a lot of jump scares?
Not really—not in the sense of, like, ax murderers who jump out of closets. The film's grim power draws more from psychological and visual terror—a lingering dread that suffuses every scene—rather than sudden, cheap scares.

Will I have nightmares afterwards?
It's entirely possible.

Any other movies to compare this to?
Hereditary has received comparisons to John Krasinski's recent A Quiet Place, since both films subvert genre clichés and confront deep anxieties involving familial ties and grief. You could also draw parallels with the 2014 film It Follows, in which characters are similarly stalked and haunted by supernatural forces beyond their comprehension. And if you want a canonical horror reference, the sense of domestic horror and mounting distrust between immediate family members is vaguely reminiscent of The Shining. (There's a creepy-child trope, too, as in The Shining and The Omen.)

Are all these recent films inspiring critics to take horror more seriously?
Definitely. As the New York Times put it: "We're in the midst of a golden age of grown-up horror. Hushed and character-driven, this mix of indie fare and blockbusters works ferociously on adult anxieties in an age of dislocation." Hereditary, in particular, has received almost unanimously positive reviews. Even Oscar is starting to recognize horror films with more frequency.

This Alex Wolff kid looks familiar. Where do I recognize him from?
Wolff, the tousle-haired 20-year-old co-star of Hereditary, is probably best recognized from his Nickelodeon stardom on The Naked Brothers Band. (He also appeared alongside Ellen Burstyn in indie flick The House of Tomorrow, and he played Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Patriots Day.) Needless to say, this new role—in which Wolff's character, initially functioning as a sort of anchor of innocence, becomes increasingly terrorized as his family falls to demonic powers—might prove alienating to fans of Naked Brothers Band.

Toni Collette
Actress Toni Collette stars in the new horror film 'Hereditary.' A24

Hasn't Toni Collette appeared in another horror movie about a child disturbed by supernatural visions?
Yes! She played Haley Joel Osment's mother in the genre-bending 1999's The Sixth Sense.

Can I take my 12-year-old son/daughter/sister to Hereditary? I can't find a sitter.
No.

Would this be a good first date movie?
Probably not. If this film puts you in the mood for love, your date should be concerned.

I'm really scared of clowns. Are there any clowns?
That's one thing that won't be scare you in Hereditary.

Will I get possessed by the evil demon king Paimon if I go see it?
Maybe? What's the big deal? Live a little.