“Should I be sadder?” asks Annie Graham (Toni Collette) after returning home from her mother’s funeral. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) doesn’t know what to say. This mixture of grief and confusion is central to Ari Aster’s Hereditary, a new horror movie that’s been hyped as the most efficient scare machine since The Exorcist, and which is at its most unsettling when examining the contradictions of its characters’ inner lives.
Annie, a successful gallery artist, has reason to be ambivalent about the death in her family. Her mother, Ellen, was an ornery, psychologically abusive woman even before she slid into dementia; in her later years, she tormented everybody to the point of estrangement, reserving affection only for her awkward preteen granddaughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie worries about Charlie’s stunted social development and strange behavior, aspects of which echo Ellen’s mental health issues. But what Annie is really afraid of is that she might herself be a bad apple dangling from a twisted family tree.
There’s something horribly relatable here—familial anxiety as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is Annie so worried about becoming Ellen that she’s unconsciously forcing herself through the transformation? The bad vibes build up like a gas leak inside of the Grahams’ spacious, forest-adjacent home, which cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski renders in witty, geometrically precise widescreen compositions. Annie’s work involves crafting detailed, dollhouse-style dioramas, which Aster exploits for visual and thematic effect; the image of Annie as a kind of puppet-master fussing over scale representations of her own household deepens the possibility that she’s taking on Ellen’s role as the family’s manipulator. But there are also strange things happening to Charlie and her older brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), that escape their mother’s micromanagerial scrutiny: hints, hallucinations, and things left unsaid.
This juxtaposition between a woman cloistered claustrophobically in her own head and unseen forces massing around her (including in her workshop and at the foot of her bed) gives Hereditary its initial tension and mystery. Generally speaking, effective and enduring horror movies keep multiple pathways of interpretation open for as long as possible, often by having their characters reject or deny the (sur)reality of their situations: think Mia Farrow warding off paranoia in Rosemary’s Baby, or Jack Nicholson refusing to believe his eyes in The Shining, or the student filmmakers insisting that they’re lost rather than cursed in The Blair Witch Project.
Hereditary has internalized these lessons, and it keeps guessing about the exact nature of what’s going on with the Grahams. Aster’s patience is laudable and so is his ruthlessness in upping the ante sooner and more gruesomely than even seasoned genre fans will expect. Having established Charlie as the locus of most of the weirdness (Shapiro is unforgettable), Aster suddenly takes her out of the equation with extreme prejudice, leaving Peter as the sole conductor for both whatever’s lurking in the shadows and Annie’s increasingly supercharged rage and mania.
This fraught mother-son dynamic is Hereditary’s strongest point, partly because it touches on taboo feelings of parental resentment that many other movies (genre or not) won’t touch, and partly because Collette and Wolff are so sensationally well matched. Wolff’s dazed line readings suggest a sensitive kid drowning in guilt, while Collette switches between antagonism and self-hatred with blinding speed. (The early talk of an Oscar nomination is justified, even if Annie’s monologue during a group therapy session feels a bit too much like a For Your Consideration clip.) There’s a third superb performance as well, by the great character actress Ann Dowd as Joan, a member of Annie’s therapy group whose supportive, unassuming presence is punctuated with a question mark. It’s probably not a spoiler to say that in a movie where everything is tinged with menace, Joan’s kindness belies ulterior motives. Having gained Annie’s trust by relating her own experiences of losing a child, Joan tells her that there’s a way that she can communicate with Charlie from beyond the grave.
This is the point at which Hereditary finally lays it tarot cards on the table, and also where it begins to disappoint, which isn’t to say that it fails in what it’s trying to do. Aster is dealing with some heavy stuff here—grief and trauma and inherited psychosis—but his primary goal is to freak us out, and on that count, his movie is mostly a mission accomplished. Hereditary is filled with little shivers of staging and sound design (Charlie’s habit of clucking her tongue becomes like the shark’s theme in Jaws) and boasting enough disconcertingly intense imagery in the home stretch to make more susceptible viewers wish they’d stayed home. Like no less than Stanley Kubrick in The Shining, Aster understands that there’s nothing more unnerving than watching other people in the throes of terror, and he gets plenty of horrifying mileage by holding his cast members’ wide-eyed reaction shots for what feel like miniature eternities (Collette, with her amazingly malleable features, is the film’s reaction-shot MVP). More than any of the other so-called “elevated horror” movies of the last few years, Hereditary is scary. So what’s the problem?
Part of my issue is that Aster’s borrowings are so brazen. It’s one thing to evoke Rosemary’s Baby and another to rip it off. I also counted steals from The Mephisto Waltz and Kill List. The long (and, it should be said, wonderfully acted) sequence where Annie forces her family to hold a seance becomes a metaphor for the movie as a whole. By trying to channel whatever ghostly presence is hanging around her house, Annie loses her own identity. The first half of Hereditary feels like its own thing, while the second is a kind of highlight reel of things we’ve seen before, with Aster conjuring up the specters of a half-dozen horror classics and letting them take over; by the end, the movie has become an empty vessel for its references rather than a fully inhabited drama—or maybe a full-scale diorama reproduction.
“Our sacrifices will pale in the end next to our rewards,” reads a note that Ellen has left behind for Annie. It’s a creepy, cryptic missive that serves as a skeleton key for the film’s plot—like Ellen’s obituary, it gradually takes on the weight of an incantation—but it also accidentally sums up how and why Hereditary goes wrong even though it knows exactly what it’s doing. In Rosemary’s Baby and Kill List, the uncanny is used as a way to comment on some larger social or historical reality (“All of Them Witches” is the perfect paranoid mantra for the late 1960s), whereas Hereditary’s view shrinks as the film goes on. It’s ambitious to try to make something that balances psychodrama with paranormal activity—to draw from the DSM-V and the Necronomicon—and the ratio here is off. It’s frustrating to watch the intricate psychological architecture of Hereditary’s script collapse under the weight of gory, aggressive shlock—or else reveal itself as nothing more than a pretense for that shlock in the first place. By sacrificing subtlety and suggestion for a blunt-force attack, Hereditary reaps a cheap sort of reward. It’s good, but really only just good enough. Should we be sadder?