Review: “Hereditary” Is Good Example of Horror Done Right

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Walking into a movie theater to see a horror film, there are several preparatory rituals and habits many of us employ to ease our nerves. Chewing gum, eating a bucket of popcorn during the previews, or grasping your date’s arm so hard they lose circulation. We do this in anticipation of the man with the chainsaw blasting through the front door, or the decrepit clown appearing suddenly behind the unwitting protagonist. Tension builds to a crescendo, and a few seconds after reaching the apex the monster reveals its horrible visage. We jolt in our seats, then settle again in anticipation of the next loop on the roller-coaster of horror.

If most horror movies are the roller-coasters of the filmusement park, then “Hereditary” is the free fall ride. Throughout the movie, the audience can feel tension climbing ever so slowly, almost painstakingly so, as the characters and plot devices are established. At about two thirds of the way through the movie, the world begins to fall apart, spiralling downward as the main characters clash dramatically with each other or collapse in on themselves under the weight of their own personal tragedies.

The narrative encircles the Grahams, an upper-middle class dysfunctional nuclear family headed by Annie Graham, a miniature set designer. Much of the film is shot in Salt Lake City, Utah, but what I found captivating was the use of Annie’s miniatures as sets themselves throughout the movie. Many of the sets were built on a soundstage and had walls removed for the camera to move freely out of the practical room space, giving the impression of the characters existing in a dollhouse.

While the plot structure was unconventional, the camerawork and cinematography truly embodied the tension building tropes of the best horror films. Dramatically slow close ups, quivering nameless beings waiting menacingly in the background. The use of these unconfined sets allowed for a unique spectacle into the hair-raising actions of this aggrieved family.

In a Rolling Stones interview, director Ari Aster praises original horror masterpieces, but defined his directorial debut not as a horror film but “as a tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.” The first two thirds establish the Graham family as just that: a family. Annie struggles to make deadlines, her son Peter tries his best to fit in at school, and the whole family attempts to reconcile after the death of Annie’s mother. Attempts, but does not succeed, for it is revealed that the Graham family has curses that lie buried with their secretive, deceased matriarch.

Critics have likened this movie to the Exorcist, which shares themes of possession and powerful maternal ties. If I were to compare “Hereditary” to any other film, however, I would link it to the 2015 horror based in colonial New England: “The Witch.” In both movies, family roles become strained and descend into bloody, horrific chaos. When questioned about the inspiration for this film, Aster referenced his own family dynamics, and said that above all else, “Hereditary” is a family drama turned nightmare.

When watching “Hereditary” (available on Amazon, Google Play, Xbox, and iTunes), prepare to feel emotional toil. This isn’t one to watch for cheap scares and little bursts of adrenaline. You will feel the impending doom mount, higher and higher, until your knuckles are white, your teeth are clenched and your heart plummets with the characters into absolute freefall.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Review by Caleb Barber

At a Glance:
Directed by: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd

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