I sat for just a little over two hours last night in a cold, darkened theater and watched a film unfold into one of the most disturbing horror films I’ve seen in a very long time. It wasn’t horror in the sense of monsters, jump scares, demons thrashing about, or horny teenagers being hacked to death in the throes of drug-fueled passion. No, the horror I watched on screen yesterday ran far deeper and dysfunctional than anything a guy in a ski mask or fedora could come up with. It was a family in turmoil because of a death. A death that caused more relief than sadness(at least for 3 out of the 4.) But it was a death that opened an existential wound from which deep dark secrets made themselves known. A supernatural force rose from this family rift and wreaked havoc for two hours, leaving my son and I sitting in that cold, darkened theater as the end credits rolled with a sense we just watched pure mind-melting brilliance. We were also left reeling from two hours of dread, tension, disturbing images, supernatural violence, and an ending that completely hollows you out.
It was everything horror should be.
What we saw last night was Ari Aster’s Hereditary, and if you couldn’t guess I absolutely loved it. From the cast to the writing to the cinematography to the score, everything came together brilliantly. The film is a tour-de-force of a family melodrama; a family melodrama steeped in cults, ghosts, overwhelming tragedy, resentment, mental illness, intricately-created dioramas, creepy grandmas, a treehouse, lots of getting high, and truly disturbed teens. It’s not an easy film. It’s densely layered with hints of what this family is about, but nothing is laid out for you to easily digest. And when you get to the point in Hereditary when you realize you are indeed seeing what you’re seeing you have no time to prepare yourself for those last 15 minutes. It’s utterly fucked up in the best way possible.
As a lifelong fan of horror, I’ve seen my share of bluster over “the scariest movie ever made” and “the most disturbing film in years”, as well as “the most frightening film in years”. I cannot stand that sort of hyperbole in regards to horror cinema(or any cinema.) It’s disingenuous(while I loved It Comes At Night, that was sold as something it was not.) Everything is subject to the person watching. One might find it absolutely brilliant, while another is going to call it rubbish. That’s how it is. So with that in mind, Hereditary isn’t “the scariest movie ever made”. That goes to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer(don’t argue!). But what Hereditary is, is one of the best horror films I have seen in a long time. From the get go you have the feeling that you’re watching something quite unique. There’s a psychic dread that hangs over everything; from the opening shot of grandma’s newspaper obituary to that last batshit, haunting shot. Aster has a clear vision and a unique voice from which to tell this story. He is also quite brilliant in his casting choices.
With Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne as the mom(Annie Graham) and dad(Steve Graham) you have two veteran actors which to build the story around. Ann Dowd as the mysterious friend Joan adds both a smiling, great aunt sort of comfort as well as a twinge of silent speculation in regards to her intents. The true two surprises here are Alex Wolff as Peter Graham and Milly Shapiro as Charlie Graham. The children in the Graham family play the biggest roles in this spiritual and psychic battle of sorts that’s raging throughout the film. Both of these two are incredible in their roles and portray these characters as real teens, not hyper-stylized versions of you’d see on Disney XD or a CW series. Of course, given what’s going down in this film there’s a morbid and disturbed lean happening with both of them.
The cast is small, but super tight. Everyone clicks(just like Charlie) perfectly here. And for my money, Toni Collette should win a damn academy award, with Wolff getting a best supporting actor nod(my opinion, leave yours below.)
Is this movie for everyone? Hell no it’s not. Then again, neither was The Witch, It Follows, The Babadook, Blackcoat’s Daughter, RAW, The Devil’s Candy, and It Comes At Night. There seems to be a new generation of voices rising from the ashes of shitty slasher films and regurgitated horror remakes that want to truly disturb us, while also telling a real story. There’s a lot of horror fans that don’t want to necessarily think about what they’re watching. They just want to be “entertained”, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s like going to the circus, or a football game. You don’t have to think about that kind of entertainment. You sit in your seat with a bag of popcorn or a warm beer and you laugh and yell “Look at the clowns!” or “DEFENSE!! DEFENSE!! DEFENSE!!” while your brain goes on autopilot for a couple of hours. There’s no intellectual engagement involved. I do that with baking shows and reruns of Burn Notice and Regular Show.
But as someone who does enjoy higher thinking and sometimes difficult art I am very excited about the prospect of a new generation of horror filmmakers that want to get our synapses firing and truly disturb us with their art. I want to be challenged. Much like I want more in my music than a good beat and catchy melody(but man I do love a good beat and a catchy melody), I want my horror films to challenge me. And challenging horror has been hard to come by the last 15 to 20 years(with a few outliers thrown in here and there.) With filmmakers like Ari Aster, David Robert Mitchell, Robert Eggers, Sean Byrne, Oz Perkins, Julia Ducournau and Trey Edward Shults making films in the future I feel confident that I will be intellectually and viscerally stimulated for years to come.
I think it’s a good time to be a fan of horror cinema. Hereditary made me very aware of that yesterday afternoon. Go see it.