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Hereditary is the terrifying arthouse horror film of the year

One family’s descent into hell makes for a terrifying, deeply unsettling ride.

Toni Collette stars, terrifyingly and terrified, in Hereditary.
Toni Collette stars, terrifyingly and terrified, in Hereditary.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

“Scary” isn’t the right descriptor for Hereditary, director Ari Aster’s feature debut and the creeptastic movie destined to be this summer’s arthouse horror movie, in the manner of It Follows or The Babadook.

Now, let me be clear: That’s not to say it isn’t scary. I’m a generally phlegmatic moviegoer, but the first time I saw Hereditary I yelped a lot, and very nearly crawled under my seat once or twice, to the bemusement of my viewing companions.

But mostly I just felt really weirded out, which is what the movie wants. If you’re going into Hereditary looking for a “scary movie,” you’re doing it wrong. Better descriptors might be “uncanny,” or “unnerving,” or “vexing,” or “devilish.” It’s half supernatural horror film, half startlingly realistic drama about a family dealing with grief, and it wants to make you feel marvelously, deliciously uncomfortable for a whole host of reasons, only some of which are about the scary bits.

In that way, Hereditary is a true horror film. What you feel from the start is a sense of real horror, some kind of cross between dismay and disgust, which starts out almost undefinable and builds to a (literal) crescendo by the end. It’s a movie about the things we inherit from our families — not the good ones, but the bad, inescapable things that sometimes are best described as “curses.” And, maybe even more horrifyingly, it portrays the genuine antipathy that can spring up between family members in the wake of grief.

It is one wild, wild movie.

Toni Collette in Hereditary with a burning figure

It all starts off normally enough

The MVP of Hereditary is Toni Collette, who plays Annie Graham, a mother of two and an artist whose intricate autobiographical dioramas are shown in a big-city art gallery.

Collette is virtuosic in the role, which requires her to be motherly, depressed, and unhinged by turns. Annie had a tortured relationship with her eccentric and secretive mother, who’s just died — Annie’s eulogy at the funeral is less than complimentary. But her own family life seems, if not totally rosy, at least pretty normal. Her psychiatrist husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is loving and attentive. Her son Peter (Alex Wolff) is a pretty normal teenager, and his younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) seems depressed and odd — she makes disturbing figurines for fun, keeps emitting a clicking noise, and might see ghosts — but in a way that plenty of tween girls have been before her.

Annie feels bad that she doesn’t feel worse about her mother’s passing. But it’s clearly a relief that she’s gone, especially since she’d apparently been living with the family in their big, creaky house. Annie goes to a support group for the grieving, where she meets a woman named Joan (Ann Dowd). But she feels different from the others in the group, whose grief stems more from loss than guilt. For once in her life, it seems, she might be free.

But, of course, this is a horror film.

Milly Shapiro in Hereditary
Milly Shapiro in Hereditary.

Hereditary gets very weird very quickly

Everything soon goes rapidly downhill. I don’t want to give away any more because Hereditary’s story gets twisted and wild enough that part of the pleasure is in not knowing too much going in.

There are a few really shocking moments; Hereditary is not for the faint of heart. But it’s the slowly more demonic devolution into the inhuman that will really get you. Things seem normal, and then less normal, and then suddenly there’s some image that is unexplained and terrifying. Hereditary isn’t interested in constructing a coherent mythology or giving you a mystery to solve. It just gets worse and worse. (Exhibit A: We occasionally get quick shots of words scratched into the house’s wallpaper, all of which appear to be English but some of which, upon closer examination, don’t seem to be any particular language at all.)

You could argue that Hereditary is a little long. It feels, on first watch, as if it’s rambling, though it coheres much better the second time around, once you know where it’s going. But it’s Aster’s control of images and intuitive sense of what will freak out the audience that really makes Hereditary work. At the start of the film, the camera pans across a cluttered studio to a dollhouse, then slowly and inexorably zooms into that house, then a bedroom in the house in which a tiny figure is lying across a bed, and then, at last, we’re in the room too, and it’s all life-size, and that’s Peter on the bed.

Toni Collette and Ann Dowd in Hereditary
Toni Collette and Ann Dowd in Hereditary.

Why is that so creepy? I have no idea! It’s just a dollhouse that turns into a real house, and it’s never really raised again, though it takes on new meaning when we see Annie making dioramas. Perhaps it’s because it evokes the idea that everything we think of as “normal,” the choices we think we’re making, are actually just things we do because we’re pawns in the game of someone bigger setting us up for something.

That concept is, at least, what Hereditary is exploring beneath the horror. Like other supernatural horror films about parents and children — Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, The Witch, and many more — Hereditary is obsessed with how our parentage, our DNA, the things we can’t change about ourselves, shape our future.

And for 21st-century Americans, primed to believe that we can choose how we want to conduct our lives regardless of what kind of family we come from, the idea that we actually don’t control our own destinies is truly horrifying. We’d like to believe we’re the captains of our own ships, the masters of our fate — that we can overcome our DNA and our upbringing to become whoever we want to be. (To that point, there’s a way to read Hereditary as being about the fear of inheriting a parent’s mental illness, and while that’s definitely not its only point, it adds an extra layer of fear to the film.)

But what if, Hereditary asks, that’s all wrong? What if we will all eventually succumb to the fate written in our genes and in our stars?

That way lies madness. But madness, of a kind, is exactly what Hereditary is after. The movie lingers in the mind and sits like a lump in the soul. And it’s deliciously twisted along the way. Hereditary has nightmare fodder to spare, and nobody, in the end, gets to escape.

Hereditary opens in theaters on June 8.