I had been hearing so much hype out of the film festival circuit about how terrifying Ari Aster’s Hereditary is that I actually found myself dreading the experience. I mean, I love horror films, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to spend two hours in a state of total fear, and I didn’t know anything about Hereditary going in, so I had no idea what to expect.
It’s so much more terrifying than I had anticipated, but in a completely different way. The hype about this movie, somehow, managed to underplay how truly traumatic a film it is. Anyone who tells you that Hereditary will leave you with nightmares presumes that you’ll actually be able to sleep again — it kept me awake long after I saw it. It’s the kind of film where you want to run out into broad daylight as soon as possible so that you can shake it off, get out from underneath its spell, the pall of horror that blankets you while watching Hereditary.
To be clear: This is not a cheap, jump-scare kind of horror film. It’s not a bloody, gory horror film with a huge body count, either. There’s no real boogeyman or haunted house or blind alien monster or dark children’s characters come to life. While a lot of the imagery in Hereditary may haunt you for days, the horror here is almost purely psychological. It will get into your head and implant itself.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot — it’s a movie that’s best to go into cold, and words couldn’t do it justice anyway — but this is a review, so I feel that I should at least lay out the premise and explain why Hereditary is so much more effective than any other horror film I’ve ever seen.
The film stars Toni Collette as Annie, who is attending the funeral of her mother when Hereditary opens. Annie’s mother was a secretive and difficult person, and it’s not clear early on how her death plays into the film, but it’s enough to know that her mother’s death leaves Annie and her daughter, Charlie, shaken. I’m not sure how to describe Charlie (Milly Shapiro), either, except to say that this is her:
She’s creepy, but in a weirdly sympathetic way. You’re both creeped out by her and want to give her a hug. Her family clearly loves her, too, but she also seems like something of a small burden, a quiet offbeat girl who stares off into the distance and occasionally cuts the head off of dead birds. You know the type.
FIRST ACT SPOILERS
Anyway, one night Annie’s son, Peter (Alex Wolff) decides to go to a party that will involve drinking and smoking pot, and Annie — who clearly wants to get her daughter out of her hair so that she can get some work done — makes Peter take Charlie with him. At the party, Peter abandons his sister to go smoke a bowl with a girl, and in the meantime, Charlie eats a piece of cake and has an allergic reaction. Peter, in a state of panic, picks up his sister, runs her out to the car, and speeds off to the hospital to get her treated. On the way, however, Peter swerves to miss an animal in the road, and Charlie — with her head out the window and gasping for air because of her allergic reaction — is decapitated by a telephone pole.
Let me just write that again: This quiet little girl is decapitated by a telephone pole.
It’s a horrible, devastating, disquieting moment, and Ari Aster puts us in the car with Peter, who is in a complete state of shock. It’s hard not to wonder what we might do in that same situation with your poor, defenseless little sister dead in your backseat, her head lying on the side of the road. A catatonic Peter cannot face the horror of what he has done, so he drives home, quietly walks into his house, and falls into bed. The next morning, he awakens to the wailing sounds of his mother after she discovers Charlie’s headless body in the back of Peter’s car.
And that’s when the horror movie begins.
But here’s why the horror movie that follows is so effective. It’s because what happens afterward manifests itself from the guilt that Peter feels for killing his sister, and the resentment and anger that Annie feels toward her own son for his involvement in her daughter’s death. But also, she feels her own sense of guilt, for having sent Charlie to the party. Meanwhile, the father — Gabriel Byrne’s Steve — is mostly in survival mode. He’s just trying to keep it together for his son. They’re a broken family that desperately misses their daughter and sister. The grief is overwhelming, but it’s commingled with guilt and shame and anger, and all of those emotions anchor the horror movie that follows.
We understand, then, why Annie decides to perform a seance. This is not a bunch of teenagers playing with a
Ouija board. It’s a broken woman experiencing crippling grief who wants to speak to her daughter again, but who is also probably a little afraid to do so, fearing what her daughter might think of her, of her role in Charlie’s death.
The grisly hell that follows — working from the already established base of emotions — is unspeakable. There are moments — images from this movie — that I will never forget, that have been forever imprinted upon my brain, that will sneak out from my subconscious and terrify me 40 years from now when I’m in hospice care.
There are probably layers in this movie, too, that I feel like I might have missed — symbolism, foreshadowing, little easter eggs — and I feel like it’s a movie that I should study, that I should watch again to pick up on those things. But I will never watch this movie again. I think that, especially for parents, it’s a movie that may be too hard for some to watch once, much less twice.
I’ve never really considered the idea that there might be a movie that is too scary to watch, and I suspect for a lot of people, that might sound like a challenge. But this is not that kind of movie. You can’t endure Hereditary or cover your eyes during the scary parts. It’s not a giant steak you can eat in under 30 minutes. It’s not a rollercoaster that you can ride for two hours and hop off. It’s an experience, one that will stick with you for hours, if not days. It’s a great horror film — like combining The Conjuring and The Babadook with Manchester by the Sea — but I don’t know that I would recommend it to everyone. Or even anyone.