Picture a window. Outside you can see a simple wooden treehouse. The camera pans from the window around a workshop full of miniatures, sites of trauma for our heroine, until we reach a house. The camera then slowly dollys into the model, focusing purely on one room. It locks into place as a man enters the room to wake his son and tells him to get ready for the funeral of family matriarch, Ellen. And thus we the audience are stuck, voyeuristically watching the Graham family trudging toward their inevitable fate. This is how Hereditary begins.
The main character is neither the young man or his father but instead it is Annie Graham, the daughter of Ellen. As the family come to terms with the loss of Ellen, it is slowly revealed that other issues, old wounds and odd occurrences are driving a wedge between the family members and they rear their head as something supernatural is perhaps stalking the family with nefarious intentions.
Hereditary will be challenging to talk about because it is best experienced clean, knowing nothing about it, so this review will have to dance around some of the film’s twists and turns, ignoring the plot and focusing entirely instead on tone, feeling and style. Which is fine, because there is still so much to talk about.
Hereditary is as intricate as the models that Annie Graham builds, which adds an extra element of horror thanks to the wide shots making each scene look like it takes place in a miniature, locking the family to the inevitability of the end. Each set is richly lit, giving everything a warmth and texture that slowly mutates into something else as the film goes on. It also has a masterful use of shadow and mystery. While this may not be scary to some during the runtime, when you exit the theatre into the night, every rock and telephone pole looks threatening.
It is relevant wholly on the atmosphere it generates and unfortunately, if you aren’t drawn into the slow, quiet first hour and a half, the end is going to look laughable. If the film does have its hooks in you it is one of the most intense experiences I have ever had; I was on the verge of snapping the pen I was taking notes with. I will reiterate that Hereditary is a slow burn, it reveals some of its information at a snail’s pace, the rest of the mysteries it leaves unaddressed meaning that you will be mulling this over for days after you have finished watching the film, driving the terror even deeper. Plus with a sound design that places that *tock* noise at the centre of most of the unseen horror which will startle you for a good few months I am sure it will keep you on edge for a while.
But all that horror would be for nought if you didn’t have characters to be scared for. All the small cast do a fantastic job of conveying every possible emotion from grief to fear to anger to longing to worry to manic joy, but there is nothing happy about the family. There is something unspoken, some terrible thing that has happened and it looms over all the members and at the centre of it all are two people. While Gabriel Byrne gives a wonderful performance as the down to earth and more grounded character, Steve, and Milly Shapiro turns the creepy factor up past 11 as Charlie Graham the producer of the sound that will haunt my dreams forever, it is Toni Collette and Alex Wolff who demand your attention. Collette provides an iconic performance that rivals Mia Farrow’s in Rosemary’s Baby as Annie, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her descent is heartbreaking and terrifying as we begin to question her and ourselves. Wolff keeps up, running the entire gambit and making himself stand out from the two more seasoned actors as Peter Graham, the oldest child who suffers the most. But each of these performances never feels individual, each is connected to the other, like a family drawing out all the good and bad in each of its characters (in the case of the film it is mostly bad). You really believe that this is a family that has done terrible harm to itself and the wounds are still open and raw.
Taglines may compare Hereditory to The Exorcist, but in reality this is closer to Rosemary’s Baby, The Babadook, The VVitch by way of Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It is a film that will unnerve thanks to the way it takes seemingly mundane issues and twisting them into something otherworldly and wholly unnerving.
You can watch Hereditary in cinema’s now