At their most palpable and most powerful, great works of horror allow us to understand and confront the darkest parts of ourselves, to see into the fetid corners of the human soul and shine light on that which most frightens and unsettles us. In such works, the supernatural or uncanny is merely a means towards this, employed as a kind of fantastical metaphor for what is often something far more human. This is the principle on which writer and director Ari Aster’s now legendary debut film ‘Hereditary’ rests, and part of the reason why this unforgiving beast left so many audiences divided and confused. What they were sold was something apparently so scary it would mess you up. What they got was a mirror showing them something they didn’t want to see.
If you haven’t seen ‘Hereditary’, stop reading now. There are serious spoilers ahead. You have been warned.
The first time I saw ‘Hereditary’, it left me deeply shaken. I come from two families where serious mental illness is a given, an inherited trait passed on from generation to generation. The fear of that has defined many of us, whether it be my parents, terrified of what may have passed on to us, or my siblings and I trying to find a way to anticipate and control it. All families have these dark rivers running through them, whether it be mental illness or inherited family trauma caused by personal, social or historical tragedy, and this common fear lies at the heart of ‘Hereditary’. It defines the relationships within the Graham family - Annie (Toni Collette) has tried to escape from the unforgiving influence of her recently deceased mother, but fears deep in her soul, not only that she has that darkness within herself, but that she may have passed it onto her children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Charlie herself seems to almost embody that fear with her haunted and distant look, as if wrought from trauma itself. The real horror at the heart of ‘Hereditary’ isn’t the coven of witches attempting to use the family as a vessel to summon a Prince of Hell. The real horror is the emotional trauma festering within the family itself, something painfully and uncomfortably real. The demonic is always stalking in the background, but much like the antagonistic voyeur in ‘The Witch’, simply has to set the wheels in motion and observe as the family detonates from the inside. If you were to remove the supernatural from ‘Hereditary’, it would still be a gruelling experience, Aster’s rendering of full-bodied grief something akin to Ingmar Bergman. By fashioning it instead as a work of pure horror though, it elevates the psychological torment of the film to even more unsettling and extraordinary levels.
SWITCH: 'HEREDITARY' TRAILER
Where most films either remain objective about their characters or frame themselves sympathetically toward them, ‘Hereditary’ does not. The opening shot positions us as observers, voyeurs into this family and home, and Aster straps you in before you realise that the film you’re watching is almost revelling in the trauma being inflicted on them. Rewatching the film, with the initial shock of its utterly insane third act behind you, it unfolds like a magnificent puzzle, each seeming red herring or random flash of oddness instead serving to land the film, and its emotional metaphor, in that operatic finale. You could almost reclassify the film as a tragedy, because from the offset, what happens to Annie and her family becomes inevitable, the final links in a chain of events that were laid long before their births, whether it be demonic or emotional. And because Aster’s film wants the family to fail, wants them to succumb to what is inevitable, we’re helpless, forced to watch it all come crashing down around them.
It’s kind of staggering that this should be a debut feature, so complete is its vision and so extreme Aster’s control. The whole film is a perfectly calibrated machine, built with frightening precision and completely unforgiving in its function, making it one of the purest horror films of this century. Its purpose is to burn itself into your memory, whether through the titanic performances from Toni Collette and and Alex Wolff, the nightmare-inducing imagery from cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, the unforgiving knife-like editing from Lucien Johnston and Jennifer Lame, or the demonic symphony from Colin Stetson. As an announcement of his talent as a director, Ari Aster delivers a statement of intent basically impossible to ignore, and even the film’s minor flaws a drowned out by the sheer audacity of his vision.
The whole film is a perfectly calibrated machine, built with frightening precision and completely unforgiving in its function, making it one of the purest horror films of this century.
‘Hereditary’ is a film birthed from the depths of hell, a dark and thunderous vision of the one of the greatest fears we have - that our own minds may in the end not only betray and destroy us, but destroy those we love most. This is a film that watches you as much as you watch it, an insane maniac hiding in the dark waiting for us to weaken before it strikes, its smile only getting wider and wilder as chaos reigns around it. ‘Hereditary’ is human trauma wrought as art, and if you’re willing to look it in the eyes and hold its gaze, that art is truly a wonder to behold. It may just be short of a masterpiece.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘Hereditary’ is given an impressive 1080p 200:1 transfer for its Blu-ray release. There’s a cold sharpness to the image fitting the tone of the film, but what really impresses are the colours. The eclectic palette really pops in high definition, and supports the almost fetid visual quality of the film. It’s accompanied by an equally impressive DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. As with any great horror film, sound is integral to ‘Hereditary’, and this track captures the subtle nuances and often important uses of silence in the design, without sacrificing dialogue in the balancing of the track. It’s a pity the film hasn’t been given a 4K release here as it has in the United States, but there’s not much to complain about with this Blu-ray presentation.
What I would have given for a directors commentary on this one! Unfortunately, there’s not a lot in the way of extra material on this disc, though we don’t lose out on anything from other international releases. ‘Cursed: The True Nature of Hereditary’ (20:08) is a relatively standard making-of, though it does feature some relatively in-depth interviews with Aster and the cast. The discussion is more around the emotional and thematic ideas of the film, but there are some great behind the scenes tidbits in there. A selection of deleted scenes (15:46) is also included, mostly featuring character moments around Peter, none of them essential. Finally, there’s an image gallery of the extraordinary miniature artworks created for the film.