According to reviews and word of mouth, Hereditary — a new horror movie, from A24, which opened this past weekend — will have you reaching for a nightlight. “Scariest Movie of 2018,” says one review. “The Most Fucked-Up Movie of the Year,” says another. “A New Kind of Horror,” says another still. And sure, it looks scary. But A24’s past summer horror offerings, It Follows and The Witch, were also super hyped — and, while both turned out to be inventive and totally fresh takes on what is scary, they didn’t make me pee the seat or anything. So, is Hereditary another case of smart-weird-and-kind-of-freaky ? Or is it as devastatingly terrifying as advertised?
Allow me to be your canary in the mine shaft, so you may decide whether you should see it.
Hereditary is, I guess, a family horror movie. It starts innocently enough: Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolf) and her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) prepare to attend the funeral of Annie’s mother, a mysterious woman with whom she had a difficult relationship.
Things are off. This is largely signaled by the unsettling Charlie, who creates art from found objects (Altoids tins, the severed head of a bird she decapitated) and makes an odd clucking noise with her tongue that becomes a sort of leitmotif through the rest of the movie. Meanwhile, matriarch Annie is not okay, and believes herself to be cursed by a lineage of people who are not okay, meaning that that her family — especially her emotionally troubled teenage son, Peter — will not be okay either. By the time of an unexpectedly shocking and brutal accident about 30 minutes into the movie (no spoilers here), it’s clear that the whole family is really, really not okay, and oh joy, we’re about to spend the next 90 minutes figuring out why.
What starts out as a nightmarish, nearly unbearable exploration of grief and death and mourning then shifts gears into a demonic-cult genre film. This movie does a lot. Like Beyoncé-at-Coachella levels of a lot. And yes — in answer to the big question — it is actually as scary as everyone says. If you can eat popcorn while watching, you might be a sociopath.
There are many things that make this movie as terrifying it is. Cinematically, its shots tend to feel claustrophobic or just slightly off-kilter. Once there’s that foundation of visual disorientation, the film uses small moments of slow, cold dread that accumulate over the course of two hours to make you feel really unsettled: a phone call about a grave that has been desecrated, a glimpse of a burning body, a bird flying into a window, a facial expression in a mirror. It’s a classic, domestic, 1970s sort of horror film, reinvented for 2018.
Director Ari Aster doesn’t use orthodox jump scares the way another recent domestic horror movie, A Quiet Place, did. In Hereditary, what’s meant to startle you slides slowly into view or into your consciousness in the most insidious way. My favorite moment in the theater were the waves of oh-my-Gods as people realized one by one that something menacing was lurking just behind a character’s head onscreen. And Aster Pavlov-dogged the audience: I was writhing in fear every time I heard that damn cluck.
Ultimately, by building layer upon layer of uncomfortable anticipation, Hereditary makes horror feel cathartic. By the time it shifts into cult territory, the whole audience was so on edge from an hour of Collette’s unrelenting grief that Satanism seems like a sweet release —like some sort of fear orgasm. Hail Satan: It felt good to have all that dread give way to terror and bewilderment. The night I saw it, everyone shrieked at the same time, but then also laughed nervously, like we were all losing our minds together. (Some people in my screening walked out, even, the mindfuck just too much to tolerate.)
The final verdict: Two days later, I still can’t walk into a dark room without panicking. Good luck.