We are in a glorious moment for horror. Boldly original and deeply terrifying directorial debuts like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Julia Ducournau’s Raw, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out have not only had critics cheering, and audiences screaming, but also announced the arrival of daring new visionaries to the genre. Next to join this esteemed company of masterful horror makers is Ari Aster. This ruthlessly talented writer/director makes his feature film debut with the Sundance-heralded Hereditary, which turns family dysfunction into pure, unfiltered nightmare fuel.
Hereditary begins as an eerie family drama about the Grahams. When their mentally unwell and desperately secretive grandmother passes away, her daughter Annie (Toni Collette) struggles not only with grief, but also a stabbing regret that drives her to be more attentive to her own children, angst-ridden teen Peter (Alex Wolff) and painfully awkward tween Charlie (Milly Shapiro). But the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Horrific mistakes lead to festering family bonds. And all the while, increasingly strange things happen to around the Grahams’ home. Which makes Annie suspect their dearly departed loved one might not be gone after all.
Forget what you think you know about modern horror. Aster won’t give you the pleasant jolts of jump scares, or the macabre catharsis of splashy gore. Instead, he dedicatedly turns the screws, creating inescapable, unrepentant tension. Powerhouse performances across the board pull you into the Graham family’s horrors, and force you to suffer as they do. The keening of Collette’s grief is so intense that it’s brutally breathtaking. Wolff’s big, frightened eyes tremble, spurring a wave goosebumps. The vacant, haunted expression that washes over Shapiro’s face, pulls you to the edge of your seat. But Aster refuses to give a reprieve. Silence and dread hang like a guillotine blade, heavy and threatening. Fear churns inside the audience, growing so overwhelming that they might pray for the blade to fall just to release them from the hell of waiting for it. The film’s top-notch suspense is stupendously maddening, and made for one of the most visceral theater-going experiences of my life.
Performances raw with pain and brilliant in anguish, make Hereditary a horror movie that lunges straight for your pounding heart, and won’t let go. But it’s Aster’s confidence in the cut and his shrewd patience that makes the film’s most sickening, satisfying scares electric with terror. Something terrible happens, and no quick cutaway will rescue its character or their audience from its aftermath. Instead, we sit, helpless to do anything but feel the dread bloom like a mushroom cloud. Even as you notice a new threat emerging into frame, the film won’t turn away, and so dares you to do the same.
Hereditary is graceful and relentless horror. It’s a ballet of menace. Its savage suspense twisted my guts into knots, while its shocking reveals raised goosebumps so violently they ached. As Aster’s masterpiece of terror barreled into its carnage-rich conclusion, I was emotionally annihilated and in utter awe. On its surface, Heredity is a stupendous horror movie that’s sure to scare audiences out of their minds. But beyond that, it’s a haunting story of family dysfunction that gets under your skin, and won’t be shaken off or forgotten. At its core, there’s a message about trauma and the ties that bind, which is so disturbing you might just choke on it.
Hereditary screened at the SXSW Conference as part of its Festival Favorites Slate. It will open in theaters on June 8th.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com