'Hereditary' Review: A Family Sinks into Horror Realms Beyond Jump Scares

Hereditary builds scares like a Conjuring-grade funhouse movie, tightening moments until a jump scare—that single moment of spiking, adrenaline-squirting fright—would almost be relief. But then something different happens. Instead of looking for you to yelp, Hereditary stabs a disturbing emotion into your gut. More than being scary (though it is scary), Hereditary is upsetting. Rather than creeping dread (though there is creeping dread), Hereditary feels like an endless drawing out of that queasy, shocking, falling dream sensation, as the ground beneath the Graham family, and the viewer, crumbles.

We are introduced to the Grahams in an obituary, announcing the death of family matriarch Ellen in the antiseptic language unique to the form, which both reveals a family's structure and obscures how those components interact, live and feel. We learn, for example, that Ellen's son, brother to Annie (Toni Collette), preceded her in death, gesturing toward tragedy but failing to illuminate it. It's only later, as Annie breaks down in front of a grief support group, that this single line in an obituary inflates into the dreadful shape of familial mental illness, self-destruction and suicide. That the horrific deaths of her brother and father work simultaneously as a gut-wrenching reality and supernatural foreshadowing is just one way Hereditary layers human and horror dramas atop each other to jaw-clenching effect.

Annie is an artist who builds tiny dioramas, mostly of domestic scenes, though shocking events soon find their way into her art. If interactions with her son devolve into icy silence and screaming fights, Annie can always enshrine a terrible family moment in the perfect stillness of her work.

Her children, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff), are familiar varieties of troubled. Charlie is too shy and a little morbid, creating disjointed figures out of dead animal parts and household items—twisted versions of her mother's artistic work, the daughter an exaggerated recursion of the parent. Peter is a pothead and your typical teenage misanthrope. And while Charlie's unnerving stare and habitual mouth *click* definitely put her on the creepy kid spectrum, the Hereditary family is, at least at first, relatable in its dysfunction, with only Annie's sleepwalking (which occasionally enacts her suppressed regrets at having children) and the specter of Ellen indicating problems more dangerous than those typical of millions of households.

Shortly after Ellen's funeral, her grave is desecrated. And while it's little more than a narrative aside, bundled away by the family's taciturn and conflict-smoothing father, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), it's also our first indication that something much more than family drama and unhatched mental illness is at play. When Annie bumps into a woman who offers to put her in touch with the dead—an offer extended with the same neighborly hominess as a plate of brownies—their problems escalate from merely tragic into occult realms of terror, where familial peccadilloes become fuel for inhuman powers.

Annie's occult experiments quickly get out of hand. A24

It's easiest to describe Hereditary as a dark family drama turned deadly—something like Stoker, or The Squid and the Whale with mortification of the flesh (speaking of, Hellraiser isn't a bad comparison point)—because to do much more would be to spoil what happens when Hereditary flips from simmering to skin-charring. The devastating consequences of family strife, where every word is intimate enough to wound, is an essential portion of Hereditary's poisoned supper, but there's quite a lot of traditional horror pleasures as well.

Even beyond the well-tuned scares and exceptional script, writer-director Ari Aster demonstrates a rare conceptual mastery in Hereditary. From the very beginning, where we are first shown a tree house, then zoom into the dollhouse bedroom of one of Annie's sculptures, Hereditary insinuates overlapping, entangled and conflicting thematic concerns. The viewer becomes a voyeur, watching characters twist in their torment from a godlike vantage. People are represented as individuals while being simultaneously boxed in by circumstance, personal limitations and, yes, the burdens of heredity. Quasi-spaces, like the tree house, reveal twisted parodies of real life. Nested realities encircle and inform one another, each with their own, limited perspectives on the reality above, from Annie's sculpture to the household to society to the cosmic oververse where forces beyond death plot against us. "It's a neutral view of the accident!" Annie says, in protest, when her husband objects to a morbid new art project (as scary as Hereditary is, it also hits fantastic black comedy beats). Hereditary is dense with the symbolic, far beyond its smattering of occult iconography, but never feels showy or burdened with meaning.

Anchored by exceptional performances—particularly from Collette as Annie, who rips apart reality with her shrieks, cries and piercing stares—Hereditary is the best horror movie of the year so far. As an in-theater experience, it's unparalleled, the kind of movie that will have people stuffing their sleeves in their mouths to stifle moans. But it's just as exciting to imagine how Hereditary will age, because it's after more than momentary shocks. Hereditary is the rare movie that will, if enough people see it, infect the public subconscious for decades.