If you’re not comfortable with the very real possibility that you’ll be drenched in sweat and cowering in the fetal position by the end of Hereditary, perhaps this is one cinematic experience you should skip. But you’d be missing out—writer/director Ari Aster’s feature debut might be one of the most beautiful and nauseating horror movies ever made.
Hereditary centers on miniaturist artist Annie Graham (an Oscar-worthy Toni Collette), whose family is rattled by mysterious events following the death of her reclusive mother. Her daughter, tween outcast Charlie (Milly Shapiro), is apparently grieving the hardest of them all—she spends her free time making dolls out of dead pigeons and always looks like she’s got a category five hurricane brewing inside her head.
Annie’s stoner teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), her shrink husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and Charlie all seem to keep Annie at arm’s length, and in the moments when her façade of sweetness crumbles, it’s obvious that their emotional distance both terrifies and enrages her.
Everything about the family’s alpine estate is gorgeous and perfectly manicured—from the cabin’s jewel-toned stained-glass windows to the Baba Yaga-style treehouse with birch tree legs in the backyard, the attention to detail is almost reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s meticulous designs.
And the obsessive maintenance required by the property is a crystal-clear metaphor for the control Annie is able to exert over her dioramas, which re-create scenes from her own life and recall The Shining’s living model of the Overlook Hotel’s maze.
And like The Shining, Hereditary follows the old-school horror formula of sticking an upper-middle class white family in a secluded but comfortable homestead—and then watching the luxury of their isolation get stripped away as bogeymen come out. While it’s the perfect spooky container for this story, it also feels a little too simple, especially when Get Out so masterfully inverted this formula just last year.
But Hereditary also riffs on that familiarity, with Aster cramming a shocking number of classic horror tropes into these 127 minutes: A cabin in the woods! A creepy kid! Seances! Sinister embroidery! Bugs! So many bugs! But Hereditary’s horror doesn’t all stem from occult elements and perfectly timed jump scares.
There’s a dank sense of dread sprouting from the claustrophobia of intergenerational trauma, largely exhibited in the ways Annie perpetuates her mother’s abuse with her own children. Watching the Grahams’ relatable family drama play out alongside unexplained supernatural phenomena is so gripping that even at its most repulsive, you likely won’t be able to look away from the screen.
If it sounds like I’m being vague, I am. Something truly fucked up happens early on in the film that’ll unseat viewers. (Maybe even literally—I was honestly surprised no one in my audience barfed or got up and left.) No spoilers, but be warned: One image will rent space in your head for days. It’s a serious gut-punch; Aster mines too-real horror from the constant possibility that a random tragedy could annihilate your little corner of the universe at any moment.
Hereditary is brilliant—the whole thing hums with cold electricity that’s guaranteed to unsettle your soul. Aster gracefully illustrates humanity’s ancient fear of predestined fate in a setting, and with a family unit, that feels deeply rooted in reality.
It’s also a powerful reminder of the horror genre’s underutilized potential as a source for empathy—proof that it’s possible to uncover great truths about the human condition, so long as we’re willing to kneel down in the dirt and pick apart the rotting carcasses of our worst fears. Like Hereditary, it’s gross, but it’s worth it.