The Close-to-Home Horror of Hereditary

Ari Aster’s debut film stars Toni Collette as a mother besieged by fears of a family curse.

Toni Collette in 'Hereditary'

What more indefatigable enemy is there than the family tree, the idea that one’s worst nightmares have been inherited and are doomed to recur from generation to generation? Ari Aster’s debut film, Hereditary, is an impressive, wrenching piece of horror that draws all its power from that notion—that we’re cursed, as it were, to be our parents’ children. Aster has crafted a story with one foot in the world of the tense kitchen-sink drama and the other in something far more supernatural, and while it doesn’t fully succeed at blending the two genres together, it does a pretty slick job trying to.

“My mother was a very secretive and private woman,” Annie Graham (Toni Collette) says at her mom Ellen’s funeral. “She was a very difficult woman, which maybe explains me.” It’s the kind of vague statement, shrouded in euphemism, that one might make about a troublesome parent. At the start, it’s unclear what exactly was so secret about Ellen’s life, but what’s obvious is the miserable impact she had on Annie, played with intense, guarded fearfulness by Collette.

Annie is married to the affable Steve (Gabriel Byrne), with whom she has two kids, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Together, they all live in a nice big house, filled with hidden corners and long corridors best suited for drawn-out scenes of suspense. But a part of Annie is stuck in a tortured past the viewer isn’t shown, except via the miniaturized, dollhouse-like pieces of art she creates. It’s her static way of reckoning with bygone ills, frozen into tableaus that she can control. It’s when Annie loses that sense of control that Hereditary goes truly wild.

Aster’s film (he both wrote and directed) plumbs the dark depths of Ellen’s influence on her children and grandchildren, the particulars of which I wouldn’t want to spoil. But it’s hard to discuss the themes of Hereditary without going into a little bit of detail. This is, after all, a very plotty movie, one where every nasty twist feels like another puzzle piece falling into place. There’s a preordained quality to Aster’s storytelling that’s essential to the idea he’s trying to drive home—that all the horrors visited on the Graham family are inevitable, an inescapable jinx they were born to bear.

Still, Hereditary is at its best when it relies on sheer atmosphere, like in its early scenes with Charlie, a haunted-looking young teenager prone to making weird glottal clucking sounds and cutting the heads off dead pigeons. No one specifically discusses what might be the matter with Charlie, but there’s a general sense that her grandmother Ellen encouraged her worst tendencies—that she “sunk her claws” into the girl, as Annie puts it. Along with her penchant for bird mutilation, Charlie is besieged by anxieties and allergies; her brother, seemingly more “normal,” resists the role he’s been assigned as her protector in school.

Not long after Ellen’s funeral, which is presented as a chance for Annie to break free of her mother’s murky influence, another tragedy befalls the Grahams, and things shift from moody to macabre. That’s when the avuncular Joan (Ann Dowd) shows up, a helpful, supportive friend looking to guide Annie toward a paranormal cure for her unending grief. The viewer may already be aware that roles played by Dowd (a towering pillar of character acting in Hollywood) are never to be taken at face value, but Annie is trusting, and unknowingly ushers her family toward its fate.

Aster is astonishingly accomplished as a horror filmmaker considering that this is his debut movie. The scares in Hereditary are complex, gorgeously staged, and visually inventive. Like many of the other haute indie-horror works that broke out at the Sundance Film Festival (think The Witch or The Babadook), it’s light on jumps but thick with mounting tension, layering the strangeness in slowly before piling it on in the last half hour. But unlike those taut little thrillers, Hereditary is a roomy 127 minutes long, perhaps seeking the heft of a weighty drama (Aster cites Mike Leigh as an influence).

It mostly works. Collette, Byrne, and Dowd are the kinds of actors who can spin practically anything into gold, and they have more than enough to work with here. Aster wants the horror to generate from that feeling of a family breaking down, centered on a matriarch (Annie) who’s beset by her own inadequacies and failures. But he’s also making a stylish thriller that spends plenty of time explaining the particular rules of its universe, especially as the cosmic whammy engulfing the Grahams becomes more and more specific.

Even with all that running time, there just isn’t enough room for everything. Hereditary is a great scare-fest and a middling domestic saga, one that probably needed to be either 90 minutes long and brimming with terror, or three hours long and suffused with glacial, Bergman-esque dread. Aster has charted a middle path, and for a first film, it’s hard to fault the skill he’s shown in doing it. But for all the imaginatively gory choices Hereditary makes in its demented final act, I never really had a firm understanding of the characters who were undergoing the suffering. It’s a movie that’s likely to scare—but might struggle to seep into your bones.