POSTER CREDIT: HEREDITARY by Randy Ortiz
There’s a fascinating sub-genre of film that I call “emotional horror.” In addition to scaring the crap out of an audience, this brand of creepy storytelling also ups the ante with heartbreaking context. Such a contrast of despair and panic can set the scene for a perfect emotional rollercoaster as well as a serious cinematic wallop. This is definitely the case with Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY, a tragic horror film that rips your heart out, shows it too you, and then slams it against the wall while tying everything up in a visually intriguing package.
The story revolves around Annie, the matriarch of the Graham family. Her mother has just passed away, and Annie is conflicted. She had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with her mom. Adding to the strain is the fact that Annie’s mom led a very secretive, mysterious life and also tended to be an overbearing grandmother. Though Annie mourns for the loss of her mother, she struggles more with the guilt she has over the realization that she won’t exactly miss the woman who brought so much drama into her life. In the midst of Annie’s dilemma, a terrible tragedy befalls the Grahams. Soon, a series of inexplicable events and revelations begin to unfold sending the fragile Annie and her baffled family into utter chaos.
HEREDITARY is definitely scary, however it doesn’t frighten in a typical jump scare, over-the-top kind of way. It achieves a feeling of dread with a methodical slow-burn that keeps you on edge at all times. While Aster takes his time crafting the nightmarish story, he also fills every frame with details and clues that will surely continue to emerge over multiple screenings of the movie.
For instance, Annie is a professional artist who specializes in painstakingly detailed miniature dioramas. Some that are commissioned for galleries feature stark, industrial-style spaces. Others, however, showcase various scenarios from her own life, giving a startling view into Annie’s backstory and psyche. Not only does her eccentric and somewhat odd occupation help further the narrative at some points, it also provides some super bone-chilling imagery that hints at the possibility of a more grand-scale manipulation.
Though some of the visual cues are more overt- such as a weird symbol that continually pops up, or cryptic words scratched into walls throughout the family’s home- there are still many other details that are likely lost on an initial screening. Again, this is a film that most people will want to see multiple times.
In addition to the curious clues throughout the film, Aster uses fascinating imagery to convey a discombobulated feeling. The style isn’t overindulgent, but its simplistic beauty and innovative use of transitions between scenes makes it one of the most visually pleasing horror films in recent memory. Add to that a constant stream of creep-outs (including a grinning weirdo rivaling Robert Blake’s disturbing visage in LOST HIGHWAY) and a few brutally unique sequences, and a new horror classic is born. Like the films of Wes Anderson and Ti West had a baby.
Then there’s Toni Collette’s magnificent performance. To see an actress bare her soul in such a vivid way is awe-inspiring, and Collette 100% deserves an Oscar nomination for this turn. Her agony during her darkest despair, frenetic energy amid familial upheaval, and absolute terror when the shit hits the fan is all incredibly palpable and real.
Alex Wolff, as Peter, also deserves a major shout out for his incredible take as the son stuck in the middle of heart wrenching tragedy and inconceivable horror. Wolff’s performance, while perfectly subdued, aptly illustrates what happens when a wile-less kid is thrust into inexplicable madness.
I can not recommend HEREDITARY enough. This is a horror film that really goes for it in every way. It’s a satisfying slow burn, emotionally captivating, visually compelling, and unravels at just the right tempo. All this with skin-crawling uneasiness at every turn.
There are a few sequences that I cannot quit replaying in my head an entire week after screening the film. This fact paired with the intriguing style makes HEREDITARY one of the must-sees of the year.
HEREDITARY opens in theaters nationally today.
Until next time,
aka Annette Kellerman