A few months ago, I was watching the trailers before a screening and one of them was for the horror flick Truth or Dare (Jeff Wadlow, 2018), yet another retread of the hoary genre formula where a group of nubile teens are picked off one by one by sinister and supernatural forces, only this time with the laughable visual flourish of bestowing CGI rictus grins on the protagonists in the midst of their demonic possession. The film itself seemed to represent a nadir for the horror genre, made worse by the temerity of the marketing tagline “From the studio that brought you Get Out”, given that Jordan Peele’s socially relevant Oscar-winner this year seemed to herald a new imperial phase for horror. Fortunately however, writer-director Ari Aster’s feature length debut Hereditary marks a kind of course-correction and a new zenith for the most misunderstood and divisive of classical filmmaking genres.
Hereditary opens with the offscreen death of Ellen Leigh, a private yet domineering figure in the lives of her brood, daughter Annie (Toni Collette) and her husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne), and their two children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro). While the fragile Annie throws herself back into her work of creating miniature homes and diorama scenes (a la Jessie Burton’s 2014 novel The Miniaturist) for a gallery exhibition, the reduction of the family unit leaves the children to reckon with questions of their own mortality, provoking imaginary visions and strange lapses into fugue states of psychological dissociation. In the wake of further personal tragedy, the Leighs soon risk falling prey to paranoia, hallucinations and disintegration as they unearth the true persona of their mysterious grandmother and the forces working to sustain her dark lineage.
Aster’s film has arrived in UK cinemas on a daunting wave of hype, garlanded with five-star reviews and advertisements highlighting the pull-quote “The Exorcist for a new generation”. Moreover, some critics have even jumpstarted an early campaign for Toni Collette to receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her admittedly riveting performance. These preconceptions could weigh on the mind of any audience member seeing Hereditary, but my attitude towards the film was instead heavily impacted by the steadfast refusal of family and friends to accompany me to the screening. The excuses offered typically fell in the realm of squeamishness towards jump scares and shocks, which led me to consider just how misunderstood the horror genre remains. The strength or weakness of a horror nowadays is almost entirely derived from how “scary” it is, how many surprises and frights it can elicit. Hardened filmgoers boast about how un-scary they found any given horror film, as if they’re passing Hollywood’s litmus test for authentic film fans. The truth is that beyond the popularity of jolty horror films like The Conjuring and the Paranormal Activity franchises, the majority of the horror film canon are not really interested in provoking an immediate visceral reaction from audience members. Conversely, the actual appeal of the genre is in its exploitation of a horrific situation as a vessel for subversive themes and concepts; Get Out and Night of the Living Dead are masterful horrors precisely because they subtextually explore themes of racism through the unconventional and unsettling prisms of bodysnatching organisations and zombie outbreaks, rather than let down by their supposed lack of scares. In sum, a great horror film combines a repulsive conceit with an inventive yet entertaining and provocative syuzhet.
How then does Hereditary fit these requirements? The film’s numerous callbacks to previous horrors appropriately places Hereditary within a generic family tree. The obvious comparison to The Exorcist corresponds with Hereditary’s demonic possessions and occult Satanist exposition; Annie and Peter’s dissociative psychological conditions echo the split narratives and ambiguous characterisations of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway; and additionally, Hereditary’s principal contention that an evil persona is akin to a virus that is passed down as an inheritance to future generations owes a clear debt of gratitude to the manifestations of Stephen King’s titular It.
Hereditary therefore demonstrates a strong sense of intertextuality and fortunately, rather than this suggesting a lack of originality in its setup, Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski work hard to extract a thematically provocative and visually inventive depiction of the break-down of the Leighs. Aside from several truly unsettling single images that are beautifully horrific in their own right, the strongest visual motif in Hereditary is the imagery of Annie’s miniature artworks, from which one can most succinctly interpret the surrounding film. The opening sequence pulls back from a window, framing an outdoor treehouse – the scene of the ghastly coronation at the film’s denouement – before scanning the rest of Annie’s workspace and then delving into Peter’s bedroom inside the miniature replica of the Leigh family home. Without any breaks or transitions, the flesh and blood Peter is awoken and the film consequently unfolds, often utilising a similar dollhouse-style mise-en-scène with both organic and domestic lines and edges to border the frame. Aster immediately co-opts his audience as grand, omniscient voyeurs where we witness the toying with of Hereditary’s helpless Leigh family and their unwitting tendency towards self-destruction via Annie’s recreation of tragic events, all reinforcing ideas of a lack of free will and a familial manifest destiny. Moreover, the opening scene’s instigation within the dollhouse that becomes the real house insinuates the questioning of the nature of reality which predominates the emotional arcs of the Leighs and precipitates their own disintegration by paranormal legions. The power of Hereditary as an exemplary horror genre effort lies exactly in this ambiguous and unnerving positioning between the ludicrously repulsive elements of the supernatural and the all-too-real personal horrors of grief and loss.