Hereditary is a merciless nightmare for a doomed world

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens June 8
4 out of 5

Periods of political unrest lead to quality horror movies. The opposite is also true: the Obama years were a nadir for the genre: all those Paranormal Activity-movies and knockoffs were full of jump scares and not much else. It was tedious, and not very frightening.

So thank god that Donald Trump has been a world tragedy in every respect — economically, morally, environmentally, diplomatically, follicular-ly; you name it. Trump’s presidential reign has been great for horror fans (a blessing in a hideous disguise). His administration has incubated a memorable run of scary movies including Get Out, It Comes at Night, Raw, A Quiet Place and It.

Now comes the best of the bunch (yes, better than Get Out): Hereditary.

The film opens in a dark place. The Graham family is mourning the death of Grandma, an eccentric woman who had a troubled relationship with her daughter Annie (Toni Collette, spectacular). The grieving Grahams also face challenges at home, most of them having to do with the youngest daughter, Charlie (newcomer Milly Shapiro), who may or may not have a learning disability and at the very least marches at the beat of her own drum. Runs in the family, turns out.

The beleaguered clan endures one more devastating blow, one that shatters family ties and any illusion of normalcy. The combination of grief and guilt makes the Grahams vulnerable to the sinister forces gathering around them.

I’m trying to be as coy as possible about Hereditary. Suffice it to say, there’s a scene so tense I covered my head with my notebook. Not my standard reaction to scary movies.

The film’s plot is in line with classics like The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby, two of the hardest horror films to emulate. Hereditary isn’t a splatter-fest, but it uses minimum gore to great effect. Notably, you can’t avoid it: there’s no warning to avert your eyes. First-time director Ari Aster painstakingly stages every scene and it all pays off in spades.

Dread and shock notwithstanding, what makes Hereditary special is the character work. Toni Collette’s Annie Graham is an artist who paints miniatures emulating events in her life. She both loves and resents her children. Her oldest, Peter (Alex Wolff, Patriot’s Day), perceives her ambivalence and that leads to a mid-movie dust-up where unforgivable words that sound uncomfortably real are exchanged. Gabriel Byrne is excellent as the stoic father who is painfully ineffectual.

I saw the film twice. The first time it hit me on a visceral level I thought the story didn’t quite match. On second viewing I realized every aspect of the film has been thought through — the clues are all there, hiding in plain sight. To call Hereditary this generation’s The Exorcist is an exaggeration, but any film that shakes its the audience this badly has to be considered a success.

Once upon a time, we used to go to the movies for an experience, not just for entertainment. Hereditary is an experience you won’t forget.