I didn’t think it was a perfect movie, but I’ll give Hereditary this – it got to me like very few horror films ever have. I ended up watching maybe a third of it through my fingers, which I haven’t done since I was a child.
Like comedy, reaction to horror is intensely personal and subjective, and what affects me the most is not jump scares or gruesome imagery, but more so the mood and atmosphere, especially when it has a touch of the surreal or occult. Hereditary unnerved me from the beginning with its sense of bleak, gnawing dread that it sustains until the very end, when the story gets truly bonkers and off-the-rails (I don’t mean this as a criticism, though not all of the finale is executed well).
Horror elements aside, the film works just as well as the exploration of grief and trauma within a very disturbed family. Annie Graham (Toni Collette), the mother, is a diorama artist who creates elaborare miniature reproductions of the traumatic events in their life; one gets the impression that they provide her with a sense of control she otherwise lacks. Her oldest child Peter (Alex Wolff) is a withdrawn sad-eyed teen drifting through life, while his younger sister is a profoundly creepy thirteen-year-old with an unsettling dead stare and a habit of randomly clicking her tongue. Their father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is the stable, kind and stoic member of the family who struggles to maintain the peace in the face of disintegration.
I was glad to know almost nothing about the movie, including the link between its title and the story, though it naturally suggests a family burden or a curse. At the beginning of the film, the family is reeling from the death of Annie’s mother, a distant and secretive woman with whom she always had a difficult and strained relationship. As revealed at a grief counselling meeting that Annie secretly attends, her family history is one tragedy upon another: mental illness, suicide, traumatic sleepwalking incidents. After the funeral, little creepy things happen, including a hint on some sort of ghost story, before the movie serves a genuinely horrific jolt that devastates the Graham family even further, reopening old wounds and causing family members to lash out at each other in emotionally violent outbursts. And then things get worse still.
The movie ditches all subtlety in its over-the-top climax where one crazy thing happens after another – not a bad thing per se, but this kind of approach can easily slip into the ridiculous rather than terrifying, and it did so a couple of times, even making me snigger out loud once. I didn’t find the ending as confusing as some people apparently have, and I don’t necessarily need a horror film to make sense of every detail, but I did think that it all got a tad too convoluted and cluttered. Let’s just say that as far as Evil Plans go, this one seemed to rely a lot on predicting some extremely unique circumstances.
However, as a slow-build story about ordinary people who are powerless against a hidden malevolent intent that brings them closer and closer to their terrible fates, Hereditary is supremely effective and unbelievably creepy. All fours leads are excellent, and the film really cares about this messed-up family and their connections, but the movie belongs to Toni Collette, who digs deep into Annie’s rage and grief in an intense, explosive tour-de-force performance.