Hereditary ★★★★½

No matter how many movies I watch, there is one dangerous thing that I never learn from when it comes to sitting down to watch something for the first time; that there is nothing worse than having expectations. The problem with this idea is that it’s impossible not to form expectations, as it is this exact thing that allows us to decide whether we should invest our time in what is being sold to us.
I’ve absolutely gone on the record previously of my dislike of horror in general; mostly because they lean into clichéd, contrived, entirely unreal scares that never live up to the noble intentions they set out to serve. Then again, it’s also a bit unfair as these stories can never truly achieve their intentions as long as the films that concern themselves with the most obvious of what the genre offers.
The ones that do work for me are usually ones that offer atmospheric, stylistic impressions that remain on long after watching; the intimidating atmosphere of dread and gloom that linger over the storyline, characters plagued with anguish that haunt them and their family rather than the visual representation of cinematic ghosts themselves.
Which are the reasons why I went into Hereditary, firmly with the expectations of character drama interspersed with smidgens of those expected shocks that these kinds of films afford.

So, for reasons good or bad – or perhaps both – what we are provided with here is exactly what we anticipate; heady doses of both the drama and the horror shouldn’t be all that surprising, and in not-all-too-shocking reality the end result is that it isn’t. For all the praise that this actually deserves for providing some authentically creepy moments that will freak viewers out more than the usual fodder trotted out for the masses, there is too much in Hereditary that is obliged to deliver what we expect. It is forgivable when it’s this good, but those reverberations of familiarity are still there and still feel overworked.
The difference with Hereditary is that it exists in what you could consider a new wave of “arthouse horror”; obvious recent examples include The Witch, It Follows, even It Comes at Night. A style over substance interpretation that tries to provide some aesthetic depth to the quick-cuts and jump-scares that burden what we already know. So much so that it will be almost impossible for traditionalists to take this seriously; the gorgeous protracted shots and sweeping cinematography create unnerving immediacy in such a unique way, something critics fawn over but “usual” moviegoers may feel like they’ve unintentionally wondered into the wrong movie.
This is not at all helped by the tepid pacing that makes up so much of the running time. For more than half of the film we bear witness to the abovementioned drama of a family struggling through some of the most horrific grief that you could inflict on people. This certainly aids in setting the climate for the foreboding anxiety that is set to follow as the narrative meanders to its mid-point; the growing disquiet and tension that builds out of the early devastation caused by said overwhelming pain feeds into the paranoia that holds its grip firmly over the fear of what we do not expect.

Discerning audiences may cotton on to what is going on pretty quickly; the cleverly positioned exposition-heavy first half allows Hereditary to bend over backwards on its ingeniously hidden deceptions in the second half. The lingering guilt of family estrangement and long buried personal secrets are revealed and then become embedded within the DNA of the story as it unfolds.
Some of this is observable, shrewdly hidden in plain sight in the dark corners that populate the cavernous house the characters inhabit. Other elements are less apparent; Collette’s Annie pours over her work crafting miniature models of her life is both her livelihood and a deeper elucidation of the inner turmoil she suffers through the post-traumatic existence of her entire life. This is accentuated more still by the growing strangeness that seems to be overcoming her daughter Charlie in the wake of the death of her grandmother Ellen, Annie’s mother. It is ultimately this passing that is the catalyst for the events that play out, but just how much so is absolutely where Hereditary is at its most shrewd. That even in spite of the indie cinema ambiance this gives off, the story and the characters unify themselves with the inescapable scares so seamlessly you’ll absolutely still be hiding behind your popcorn box just like any other horror movie.

Impressively, in what feels like an all-too-common occurrence in modern cinema, Hereditary is actually the debut feature for writer director Ari Aster. Gracing his abilities with auteur status might be a stretch at this stage to say the least, however there is no denying his assured grasp of the mechanisms required to tell his story are imposing. The wildly inventive cinematography, immaculate production design and chilling soundscape confirm this as an assured, calculating example of the genre, a genuine, singular vision of terror that reminds us how good horror can be when it’s fashioned rather than fabricated.
While the air of “beginners luck” may be lurking behind the camera, there is nothing about anything Toni Collette brings to this that feels like less than downright perfection. Regardless of your feelings of the movie overall, there is no doubting the sheer potency and tremendous veracity she releases here. She brings a formidable darkness that swallows up every corner of every frame in Hereditary; one can only imagine where she pulled up the emotion to illustrate so specifically the earth-shattering depiction of tragedy that envelopes matriarch Annie. It’s nothing less than we have come to expect from the often underrated abilities Collette brings to any work she commits to, yet it wouldn’t be a stretch to say this it is truly award-winning worthy stuff from her; an imperious, masterful performance among the very best she has ever delivered on the screen.

It certainly is not without its faults, obviously mostly derived through the evident irony owing to the trappings of the genre it is required to exist in to perform its duties. It also does feel like it takes its sweet time stoking the embers during its first half which will put some off. But Aster and Collette both provide all the fuel during this time needed to ultimately burn everything here to ashes before it all comes to its spectacularly disturbing conclusion. His assured direction and her career-best work see Hereditary succeed in rising above the expectations levelled at it to present an exceptionally terrifying cinema experience, and certainly one of the most confident horror films in recent years.