Hereditary might not be the scariest horror film of the last decade but it is certainly the best. Barry Jenkins wrote on Twitter that Hereditary features “one of the most visceral moments” he’s ever experienced in a movie theatre. Edgar Wright called it “a beautifully shot and performed supernatural thriller that builds to some shocking sequences.” And Martin Scorsese praised the film, calling it “remarkable”.
The horror genre has grown in the last decade, incorporating elements from other genres; the movies are not all about typical horror tropes anymore. They portray engrossing drama, amazingly fleshed out characters and a premise that draws you in. All of these things ultimately contribute to the quality of horror movies. It could be said that most of the famous horror franchises of the past did not pay much attention to developing the elements in the peripheral of the horror. You could watch a horror movie and walk out of the experience feeling nothing for its characters or the premise.
The trend has changed for the better, however. What you have in the modern horror movie, at least the ones that are good, is a relatable premise and characters that evoke sympathy from the audience. When these characters land in predicaments, supernatural or otherwise, what you have from the audience is a reaction much more nuanced than terror. It is terror at its core, but sadness for the characters and a feeling of “this could happen to me”.
There are many movies that have taken this nuanced horror and polished it to a much greater degree. One of the best among them is Hereditary.
Described by Time Out New York as “this generation’s The Exorcist”, the film casts Toni Collette as Annie Graham, a mother and an artist who is struggling with the death of her mother while trying to finish a series of dioramas for her gallery exhibition. Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro are Annie’s children, Peter and Charlie both of whom are also coming to terms with the death of the family matriarch in their own dysfunctional ways. Gabriel Byrne plays the kindhearted husband, Steve, who just wants the family to come together. As the threads begin to unravel we begin to realize that much more sinister things are at play in the ancestry of the family here.
The actors’ portrayal of the characters in Hereditary is what really shines in this horror film. Every one of them delivers a stand out performance, really making us feel what it’s like to be in the character’s shoes. The premise and the writing are also praiseworthy. Even if the horror elements were to be removed from the film, it could still stand on its own as a compelling drama with a diverse range of themes.
Another thing that Hereditary does amazingly is throw out audience expectations. The character of Charlie, that the film advertised as the central character in its trailers meets a horrible fate within the prologue of the movie. After this bit, you can wave your predictions and expectations goodbye as the film takes you for a rollercoaster of a ride.
Hereditary takes its due time to establish a feeling of dread in the audience but it does not use or display any horror imagery. What has the audience in dread is the tension among the family members that are reeling from two deaths back to back.
The cinematography cashes in on the dread through the use of colour and camera movements to build upon the monster that lies past the corner, only metaphorically of course.
When the monster does come out, it is especially scary. Hereditary has painstakingly established that feeling of dread, with teasers of the things to come, for you to feel this bit as viscerally as possible. The rules are all thrown out, as you question yourself, “Is this really happening?” “Is this real or a fever dream?”
Ultimately, all of the things coming together make for an unforgettable horror experience. We’d even go as far as to say that Hereditary is the best horror experience in the last decade.
Hereditary Gets Your Heart Racing – Literally
According to Inverse, this horror flick might even get your heart pumping a little more blood than usual. Results from a Heart Rate Challenge show five moviegoers whose heart rates spiked as high as 167 beats per minute. If this data is accurate, it will make this the most physiologically stressful film in horror history.
Viewers have spoken about being shaken after watching the film, so you best prepare yourself for a wild time.
A Slow, Unsettling, Traumatic Masterpiece
There’s been a hell of a lot said about the film, Hereditary. A truly unsettling trailer that launched in late January set in motion 6 months of speculation and excitement that, upon its final release this month, culminated with Rolling Stone labelling it the “scariest movie of 2018”. While the film proceeded to smash its projected box-office gross over its opening weekend, stories began to surface over and over again of people walking out of the cinema. Critics have universally lauded it as a masterpiece, while audiences have criticised it for being slow, unsettling, and traumatic.
“So which is it,” he asked in a clumsy, transparent attempt at foreshadowing.
Let’s get the hype out of the way; Hereditary is not the scariest film of 2018. That’s not to say it isn’t terrifying, but if you’re setting off to the cinema in search of some Jigsaw jump-scares, this movie isn’t for you. Hereditary caters to a far darker part of one’s soul, the bit that sleeps, curled, in your gut and knows that, one day, everyone you love is going to die. If that sounds more like your cup of tea then jump on board.
The film’s slow, psychological descent into madness is intense and unrelenting…
By his own admission, debut feature-length director Ari Aster never considered Hereditary a horror film, preferring to term it “a tragedy that curdles into a nightmare”. The film’s slow, psychological descent into madness is intense and unrelenting, and affected a very tangible response in those seated in the cinema around me. Watching a family slowly come apart, and being forced to endure the almost unfathomable suffering of a mother pushed to her emotional limits, the audience was visibly affected by the thickening atmosphere that seemed to weigh heavier and heavier as the film crept towards its horrific climax. A couple to my left could not sit still, their fidgeting increasing as the tension rose. A poor woman to my right kept whispering that she didn’t think she could take much more. For quite some time, the film expertly begs the question as to whether any of what you’re seeing is a true, supernatural occurrence, or in the mind of a family member slowing unravelling under the stresses of guilt and mental illness, and this disquieting, liminal uncertainty is transferred onto the audience.
The slow experience of the film feels like watching someone go mad, and madness doesn’t jump out at you, mask-donned and brandishing a kitchen knife, just as the violins screech to their climax.
The small cast lends itself well to the suffocating atmosphere of the film. Milly Shapiro, in her film debut, is haunting in her portrayal of Charlie Graham, the disconnected, atypical daughter than sits at the centre of the films controversy. Alex Wolff, in a wild departure from his recent stint in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, is arresting in his portrayal of her older brother, Peter, a young manned trapped in a personal nightmare from which there is no escape. The usually captivating Gabriel Byrne’s performance is surprisingly wooden as the father who is desperately trying to hold his family together, though there are a couple golden moments when his stoic façade begins to crack under the immense pressure. This might be my only critique of the film, that in the midst of a story heavy with depth, the family lynch pin is notably two-dimensional. The small cast lends itself well to the suffocating atmosphere of the film.
But the driving force sitting at the centre of the film is undoubtedly Toni Collett’s intense, visceral portrayal of a mother coming apart at the seams. Her performance is a true tour de force that drags you to the edge of your seat and holds you there throughout the film’s runtime. Rushing between heart-wrenching and horrifying, her slowly accelerating mental and emotional collapse as she attempts to grapple with hope, disbelief, and despair, stretched thin across the gap between mental illness and the supernatural, is reason enough to watch this film. It is a performance that, in my opinion deserves a place alongside the likes of Shelly Duvall and Mia Farrow.
Hereditary is expertly directed.
From beginning to end, Hereditary is expertly directed. Aster uses a multitude of filmic techniques and inspired framing to foster a truly disquieting atmosphere throughout the film, while offering up myriad possible interpretations beyond the initial experience. Be well advised, however, that not all the traumatic and unsettling aspects of the film are portrayed through character development or clever framing. At the centre of the film sit moments that are truly harrowing, yet Aster does not shy away from them.
In a Q&A on Reddit, Aster admitted experiencing serious trepidation toward many of the moments he had committed to bring to life, wondering if he was going too far, if the graphic nature of what he wanted to show wouldn’t overshadow the emotional horror of what was happening, and if the film might be weaker because of it. In the end, he trusted his vision, and as unsettling as the final experience is, we can all be glad he did.
So, is Hereditary a masterpiece or just slow, unsettling, and traumatic? The obvious answer is both. It’s a slow, unsettling, traumatic masterpiece that foregoes jump scares in favour of a slowly building tension, coupled with tight, lingering, quiet horror. It brings to life more than enough moments to keep you up at night, staring, unblinking, into the shadows, waiting for the small, black thing that lives in your gut to quiet so that you can finally go to sleep.
Our Readers React To Hereditary
A few of our Cape Town and Johannesburg readers were treated to an early screening of Hereditary, a film that’s been dubbed by film critics as “the scariest film of the year”. Thanks to Empire Entertainment, we hosted a press screening of the film at Cavendish and Sandton Ster-Kinekor.
As I always say, it’s always great watching a really great horror film like this with a large audience. Hearing and seeing people react to what’s happening on screen makes the experience more fun. Hereditary was a film that had many moments of shock and horror and it was easy to gather from the laughs, chuckles, screams and shrieks that the audience was having a good time.
Pretty much the most evil movie I’ve ever seen, albeit the laughing I did in between! “Cluck” will haunt me forever! – Bernice Harman
Interesting plot, coupled with a few gruesome scenes. The ending was quite unusual, left a viewer feeling like “everything may have worked out”. Not many scenes which frightened or scared viewer, rather made us feel uneasy. Enjoyed the experience and movie. – Jonathan Wernich
Hereditary is a masterfully crafted experience in tension horror unlike any other this year. The slow pace but constant dread builds throughout the film but, unlike other horrors, does not offer release by an inevitable climax, instead building upon it with growing fear by stacking more and more scenarios on top of what is expected. This is a welcome change as jump scares are not used to alleviate the tension. Instead, as the film progresses, your expectations as the viewer is torn asunder by sudden plot twists that leave you reeling, unsure of what to expect next. It is a welcome departure from so-called modern day horror as you never know what might be coming next. Intricately woven within a family drama are horrors beyond imagination, with a story within a tale that few will see coming, Hereditary is a true modern horror masterpiece. – Quentin Rood
Hereditary was by far the most disturbing movie I have ever watched. My heart was in my throat throughout the movie and it left me thinking and talking about it all night. – Letape Lezario
My heart rate went from 87bpm to 119bpm. The Director is creative and the storyline is for open-minded people. It has a cinema nouveau feeling to it and is not a usual Hollywood horror/thriller. Hereditary is long as the plot wants to keep the crowd in suspense but, on the negative side, it is slow. The humour, in the end, gives the movie a mocking side of what is perceived as spiritual. – Cristel Cloete
— Nadia Swartbooi (@TheRealEmankcin) June 13, 2018
The film was excellent. I loved the tension as you wouldn’t expect the jump scares at random times. I like everything about it. It was different. The actors were perfect. I could never picture Toni Collette acting in such a role as you always see her in dramas and comedies. Overall, the movie was great. It’s in the same category as AntiChrist and The Shining. – Yuri Solomon
What a creepy movie! Would definitely recommend to anyone into scary movies. It was very entertaining – we were still chatting about it long after the bejeebers wore off. – Zynique Muller
Loved the movie. It was very captivating and played on my emotions. It was a piece of art. I was expecting a bit more as I didn’t think it was that scary compared to The Exorcist and The Conjuring. The end was a bit of an anticlimax and a tad confusing. Definitely in a class of its own. Will give it a 7 out of 10. – Lynne Stoffberg
I actually quite enjoyed the film. The ending was a little far-fetched, but the film had potential. Besides that, the evening was organized really well and I had a good night. – Dakota Guy
A few scares were effectively delivered through great acting and a storyline that I could easily follow. The ending, however, seemed rushed and didn’t exactly click into place with the rest of the movie. Overall a gripping experience – Dré
The shots were beautiful and equally unsettling. The film builds up tension with the use of each character’s struggle with grief, instead of using generic jump-scares. Definitely would watch it again. – Aaron Retief
#Hereditary was messed up. So. Messed. Up.
— Kat (@katdomingoz) June 14, 2018
This movie was so hyped up and my expectations were so high but it was a letdown. It sure wasn’t a horror movie as we know horror to be. I thought Toni Collette was very good in her role. – Beverley Swimmer
I would describe the movie as unsettling, disturbing and certainly not easy to watch. It was definitely compelling, but I am not sure I can say I enjoyed it! – Lila Bruk
I had high hopes for this movie particularly following having watched 3 trailers for the movie, and following the screening I left feeling underwhelmed following all the hype I had created for myself. Having said that, there is a lot I liked about it, having Iaughed sporadically and hysterically after the initial first +-30 minutes of the movie, which I felt was a bit long winded from the onset. Was I scared? Not really, was I enthralled to see how the rest of this psychological thriller played out? Yes! – Danielle Henry
I enjoyed the first half. Seemed all very real. Towards the end, I got lost. It was still entertaining. – Jens
Overall, the movie was good. In terms of scare factor, I felt that the horror/thriller took too long to develop, however with that said the horror/thriller was really good. The only let down was the ending, it felt a bit lacklustre and afterthought-ish but it did tie things in very well giving us an understanding of who the grandmother was and her role in all of this. – Bhavesh Valodia
Catered for everything that is a trademark to a classic horror: well acted and a good few unsettling moments. However, I wouldn’t rate it as the scariest film and the ending turned it almost comical, in my opinion. – Christine
I really enjoyed the movie but the ending was odd which was a bit of a letdown. – Michelle Guy
I must say it was more than I expected. Suspense, thriller, horror and comedy at the same time. It’s was a scary funny.. Will watch it again. – Justin Pillay
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— lezario letape (@LezarioLetape) June 14, 2018
The beginning of the movie was very long and dragged out. It was a very big let down as it wasn’t scary, until the few bits in the end. Which were more stupid than scary. Sorry, but my friend and myself didn’t enjoy it. – Sara Gray
It reminded me of “The Other Side Of The Door”. It was a bit slow and predictable. Definitely not rated as very scary. But the acting was up to scratch. – Vanesse Commin
The first hour of the movie was a bit slow, as nothing exciting happened. The last half an hour, had a little bit of suspense but was not that scary. – Charlene Smuts
The movie, I think, made the mistake of overselling itself. It just isn’t that scary. It’s beautifully shot and the acting from everyone was great. It’s not really a horror in the same vein as The Conjuring or Insidious, and those movies would be its natural competition, but more of a serious psychological thriller, very similar in feel to The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. Not a bad thing really as both of those movies rewrote the genre text book. I don’t think Hereditary is a game changer like SAW or James Wan’s movies, but a good film. – Leon Liebenberg
Hereditary was different to what I expected. It had a few good scares but was more psychological in nature. – Eli Seidle
We, @fortresszar, hosted a pre-screening for the horror film, Hereditary. The movie was quite chilling with a rather bizarre tone that gave you the creeps throughout. ??? . #movies #screening #premiere #happy #anticipation #mingling #southafrica #instadaily #instagram #love #happy #movie #film #theatre #popcorn #prescreening #hosting #fortressofsolitude #Ph03n1x #Ph03n1xZA #Hereditary #HereditarySA #sterkinekor #horror #horrorfilm #rottentomatoes #AriAster #paimon #creepfam #hereditarymovie
A post shared by Evan Saunders (@ph03n1x_za) on Jun 13, 2018 at 2:51pm PDT
Hereditary is genuinely horrifying, truly deserving of all the positive reviews it has received so far! The movie was overall freaky, twisty and unsettling with few (but deserving) jump scares that sent us flying off our seats! – Jade Blom
It was insane! It made me feel weird and uncomfortable, but I could not stop watching. It’s more of a psychological horror film, its different than the usual horror film, and that’s what makes it a must see! – Miguel Abrahams
— BrettRexB (@BrettRexB) June 13, 2018
I would definitely recommend it. The movie was disturbing and sinister and kept you guessing. Hail Paimon. – Sylvia
Hereditary was unique in that it never went into predictable territory, and constantly surprised in the levels of shocking and disturbing imagery or suggestions that it depicts. The subtle touches were by far more chilling than any typical jump scare, and some of the scenes and editing choices have been burned into my mind. It was a great cinematic experience! – Nicolas Gonzalez
Overall the film was good. I did find the start slow. The middle was really good with some great scare moments. However, the ending was a bit of a letdown, with no real hit to it. – Charles Kayser
Total plot turnaround. Sadly great cast but not quite as per expectations and missed the mark for scary movie of the decade. Still enjoyed it. – Marc Shaw
— Miguel Abrahams (@migzo) June 13, 2018
The storyline was good, unfortunately, it was very drawn out. I found it very far-fetched at the end. I could not tie the characters together either. Lastly, the story was all over the place. – Patt
I thought it wasn’t very “scary” but definitely traumatic and so messed up! The actors were brilliant. – Kauthar Maj
The film was really entertaining – well made, well acted and definitely terrifying. After building a really great story about grief and its effect on a family, the film ended on a somewhat bizarre note, pretty much collapsing the deck of cards by inserting some blatantly evil messaging. – Tafadzwa Njovana
There was some great cinematography and effective jump scares. The movie knows how the build tension and delivery on the pregnant pauses. – Benedict Winkler