Hereditary opens with the kind of aesthetic bluster we’ve come to expect from the films A24 distributes. The camera, placed inside a home’s art studio, does a 180 degree pan before locking its sights on a miniature version of the very house it’s in, zooming into one of the bedrooms until it takes up the whole frame and seamlessly transitions into the real-life version of it. It’s a neat trick, and what it foreshadows -- characters unaware of how they’re being used and manipulated by outside forces -- becomes apparent by the gonzo finale. But much like the rest of Hereditary, it’s an impressive idea followed through with a slick execution, one that doesn’t fully capitalize on its potential.
Lucky for writer/director Ari Aster -- making his feature debut -- the foundations of his film are enough to forgive his hollow stylistic inclinations. The minitatures in the opening belong to Annie (Toni Collette), an artist living in a big, rural home in the Pacific Northwest with husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), pre-teen daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff). The recent death of Annie’s mother looms over the family, and Aster continually drops hints that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Then tragedy strikes again, and as the family unit tears apart, malevolent forces enter the picture, turning the film into a full-blown horror spectacle.
Aster’s film suffers from the same setbacks as other ‘slow burn’ horror films, where the overt horror elements work better from afar than up close. What gives Hereditary an edge over other similarly structured titles is its strength as a family drama, and the specific anxieties Aster taps into. Early on, Annie talks about her family’s tragic history, ranging from the brutal deaths of her father and brother to her mother’s dissociative identity disorder. Given Annie’s family history, along with the brief hints of a frayed relationship with her own mother, Aster makes his film a literal manifestation of the fear of inheriting the bad traits of one’s own family, of being unable to break the cycle(s) one can spend their entire life trying to escape. Hereditary presents a situation where there is no escape from the past, and Annie’s dawning realization of her family’s sealed fate -- combined with the expectation of more sinister elements by the final act -- suffuses the film with a palpable sense of dread.
It’s when we finally arrive at our evil, demonic destination that Hereditary exposes itself as being far more equipped at dealing with anticipation than delivery. The horror sequences feel conventional, relying on images and constructs that wouldn’t feel out of place in one of the Conjuring films. But it’s in these moments where Hereditary shows how much more effective it is when it hones in on horrors of the emotional kind. The strongest section comes approximately halfway through, after the second tragedy hits, and the family finds themselves unable to return to any sense of normalcy. It culminates with a dinner scene where Collette unleashes a torrent of rage, spewing out her pain at others in the hopes that her sorrow will stick on to something else. It’s the most unsettling scene in the entire film; there also isn’t a single ghost or ghoul in it.