Ari Aster’s absurdly accomplished debut is the best horror movie of the year so far. You could make a good argument for it being the best horror movie of the decade. But it won’t be for everybody, because of the expectation that word – horror – creates.
It puts you in a certain frame of mind. You prepare to be launched out of your seat with shock, to scream, to giggle at yourself for being so scared of something so obviously unthreatening. Hereditary isn’t that movie. You may well scream and try to vacate your seat, but there is no time for a comforting giggle, because Hereditary doesn’t move with the rhythms of most horror movies. It doesn’t jostle you up and down, through moments of fear and relief, or ever try to make you laugh. It takes you in its cold, clammy hand and drags you further and further into despair and alarm, until the credits roll. Then it leaves you there to steep in the terrors you’ve just felt.
You’ll probably notice we’re not saying much about plot. Deliberately so, because the less you know the better. The focus is a family that has recently lost its matriarch, an unpleasant, secretive woman, by all accounts. Her daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), feels a mix of grief and release. Annie’s children, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff), and her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), move around her with caution. The unsaid hangs like heavy clouds around the whole family. They don’t know in the film’s first half hour, when they bicker and sulk and brood, that they’ll never feel this happy again.
Aster, barely into his 30s, has made a film that has echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (a big influence on Aster) in the way that it makes home, which should be the safest of places, feel alien and threatening. He directs in long, slow takes in which you can feel something horrible might happen. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but that itchy feeling of uncertain menace is what makes it so exhausting to watch. A fraught family dinner can be every bit as frightening as a ghostly apparition advancing from a dark corner. Aster builds his story’s intensity with expert control, culminating in a storm of nightmare moments that come so fast that the instinct to breathe might temporarily leave you. The horrible images he burns on your eyes will not.
Collette, an actress who has never managed a bad performance in her life, is at career-best level. The film’s weight is all on her shoulders and we see how it makes her buckle and hurt. Annie is dragged through an emotional hell and everything she’s feeling shudders out of Collette in exhausted silences and primal screams. A good measure of whether you’ll like this movie might be how much you enjoyed the very broadly similar 2014 movie The Babadook. Both films are as much about soul-deep sadness and loneliness as they are about scaring you stiff. If that left you unmoved, this may well too. In a way, those who don’t like it are the lucky ones. For those of us caught in its spell, its bleakest scenes could be haunting us for decades to come.