Hereditary: “unrelenting horror”

The biggest lie in the entertainment business is the old adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. Controversy may sell, but what P.T. Barnum hadn’t considered was the insidious danger of hype-building – something that has killed-off one too many horror movies in the past few years. The Witch, It Comes at Night, and mother! are the three recent pieces of work that first come to mind: all great films in their own right; all (incorrectly) touted and marketed by distributors as balls-to-the-wall terrifying; and all, as a result of not proving particularly terrifying, being shunned by a conned audience. This kind of hype and mis-marketing may indeed sell tickets, but it routinely annihilates the movie’s reputation.

No film in recent memory has invited more horror hyperbole than Hereditary, which has been called “the singularly most terrifying horror movie in years“; “pure emotional terrorism“; and “an absolute nightmare“. It even prompted former SXSW head Matt Dentler to ask, on Twitter, ‘Is there such a thing as “too scary”?’. Once upon a time, this would have made me incredibly excited. Now? It just feels like it’s the set-up to a huge disappointment.

I’m pleased to say that, on this occasion, you can believe the hype.

No plot descriptions should be given. Hereditary is a furious, delirious, and gruelling two-hour-plus ordeal that refuses to let-up throughout its unusually long runtime. It moves from the tragedy of a funeral, to distressing family dynamics, and a horrific, seismic event that will leave you reeling for a good five minutes, all within the first quarter. From there, it only gets worse – far worse. Horror movies, conventionally, go through peaks and troughs: there will be exposition, things begin to get creepy, then the action builds and lulls over a series of set-pieces. Hereditary doesn’t work like that: there is no real exposition. There are no set-pieces. The film is one long, continuous build-up to a crescendo of sheer pain and unrelenting horror.

Throughout it all is a pervading, ominous sense that nothing will be alright. That these people we’re witnessing on screen are good people, or at least they’re not bad people, and that they’re powerless to stop the forces pulling them limb from limb and dragging them into the abyss. It’s called Hereditary because nothing is more horrific than the thought that, by virtue of being born from certain parents, we may be destined to do terrible things to the people we love, or to suffer endlessly. Sitting there, in the luxury of Picturehouse Central, I began to reconsider my definition of fear. Soaked in sweat, and gripping the armrests on either side of me, I experienced something closer to genuine, primal terror than horror movies generally reach: the suffocating, devastating realisation of inevitability.

But even aside from the crushing thematic heft, Hereditary loads itself with shattering visual horror from the very start. Director Ari Aster likes to fill dark frames with even darker silhouettes and sinister presences: some are obvious, some are only noticeable after time has passed, and some are so subtle that I wondered whether half the audience even noticed the twisted, demonic form clinging to the corner of the ceiling, cloaked in the shadows of night. These sequences make for spine-tingling, chilling fear that’s sure to see cinemagoers peering into the recesses of their bedrooms, paralysed by the thought that something is lurking just out of sight. Hereditary throws in a cornucopia of mentally-scarring imagery that’s sure to sear itself into the minds of generations to come: an unholy mishmash of naked bodies, gushing gore, festering corpses, and swarming insects makes for an incredibly distressing watch that produces scenes repulsive to the senses. Aster even throws in a couple of jump-scares for good measure, but they’re understated, devoid of cheap audio-cues, and somehow create tension rather than dispel it.

More impressive is the hypnotic, nightmarish atmosphere that sends the audience into a trance state. Saxophonist Colin Stetson has crafted a labyrinthine, idiosyncratic score that weaves Lynch-like through every scene, tying the film into one deeply-unsettling knot. Droning analogue synths are omnipresent, punctuated in bigger moments by screeching saxophones and violins, and ominous, deep, occultist singing. At times, Aster imbues his film with a sort of haze – I’m not sure particularly how – that leaves us reeling in the same way as his characters for a good few minutes. This horrific-dreamscape vibe enables the film to slip further and further into the realms of seances, the supernatural – and even the absurd.

Pawel Pogorzelski’s work behind the camera reveals a Kubrickian verve for capturing symmetry and idiosyncratic environments. At multiple points, Hereditary focuses on the creation of a dollhouse, and, visually, the widescreen shots echo this. Often, as the film was shot on sound-stages, Pogorzelski captures an entire room in a single shot; giving the finished product a voyeuristic, uncanny-valley feel. External shots also highlight this, with Aster often making them look as if we are gazing upon an elaborate model of a house, as opposed to the house itself. Similarly, a surreal, unsettling atmosphere is generated by the repeated use of a technique whereby, in a single clicking noise, the action changes from day to night, but the actors and sets stay in precisely the same configurations. It’s a deeply effective bravura touch.

And then there’s the performances. Toni Collette gives a shrieking, hysterical turn as a matriarch in downfall. Going from broken, to shattered, to completely uncontrolled and uninhibited within the space of around an hour, we totally believe the terrible things she says and the devastating choices she makes. It takes a lot of skill to carry a bat-shit-crazy movie like this, and Collette transforms what could’ve been almost laughable in its operatic extremity into sheer, serious horror. Alex Wolff keeps up the standard as a rebellious teenage son, matching the emotional intensity of his on-screen mother in a number of standout scenes that see the two reaching emotional climaxes that threaten to derail the narrative altogether. Gabriel Byrne and Milly Shapiro both put in spectacular supporting roles as the struggling, rational father and problematic, handicapped daughter respectively. Hereditary is only as effective as it is because we believe and identify with these people: watching those we care about suffer in the way that Aster demands is truly harrowing.

Hereditary is not a film for casual viewing. It’s not a date-night spookfest, nor is it an old-fashioned haunted-house piece. Instead it’s a piece of operatic, shrieking horror that’s as affecting as it is relentless. Oscar-worthy performances, a distinctive visual style, and an incredible score propel two-hours of unbearable build-up to a shattering, shocking finale. Ari Aster has crafted something that’s far more terrifying than things that go bump in the night: the realisation that we are not truly free to choose our destinies; that we never, in some ways, transcend the grip of our parents; that we can be bound, inexorably, to hurt the ones we love.

Try sleeping after taking all that in.

5/5