What is it about horror films that make us love (or loathe) being sent into a state of terror? I love the adrenaline rush, feeling my blood pulsing and hands sweating as the scares unfold on the screen. Taking those responses to a whole new level is 'Hereditary', from first-time feature writer/director Ari Aster, which has been touted by some as one of the scariest horror films of all time. So can it live up to the hype?
Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is dealing with the passing of her estranged mother, whilst trying to take care of her son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) tries his best to support Annie, but a series of strange events leads her to become increasingly paranoid and erratic. As tragedy after tragedy falls upon the family, these mysterious events threaten to tear the family apart.
To reveal any more about the plot would be to ruin so many surprises, but it's safe to say this is a film unconcerned with comfort. Functioning simultaneously on numerous levels, 'Hereditary' is psychologically aggressive, viscerally agonising, uneasily sinister and startlingly confronting. To call it a horror film is to do it a disservice; its complex assault is equal parts mystery, supernatural, thriller and family drama, creating a messy amalgamation that refuses to follow any rules. The film never shies away from accosting its audience, and the tension that drips from every frame makes this film all the better for it.
It may not be a straightforward horror, but it does borrow devices which escalate its uneasiness. In the Graham home, the frame rarely sits still, always moving and drifting, with DoP Pawel Pogorzelski's camera not just an observer but a conduit to draw the audience into the film. Annie's fascination with building miniature dioramas - particularly those recreating reality - make for creepy set pieces which litter their home. Yet the most eerie element of 'Hereditary' is its score and sound design, an amalgamation of aural uneasiness which permeates throughout every single scene.
'Hereditary' is psychologically aggressive, viscerally agonising, uneasily sinister and startlingly confronting.
While the entire cast provide on-point performances, it's impossible to deny this is Toni Collette's film. She's completely fixating as she navigates her grief, and as that emotion slowly mutates into something more sinister, her portrayal only becomes more powerful. She's a woman trapped in a family full of secrets, and as they continue to unravel, so does her sanity, and we watch her fall apart on screen. While Collette rarely puts a foot wrong in any role, she puts her body and mind on the line for this performance in order to become the crucial anchor of the film.
'Hereditary' is not for the faint of heart. It's a stressful, intense ride through an escalating family tragedy with a supernatural horror twist. It reinforces Toni Collette's talent as a phenomenally versatile actor whose educated risks continue to pay off. Most excitingly, it also marks an impressive feature debut from Ari Aster, whose precise execution shows great promise for an exciting new filmmaker. The film is a thoroughly engrossing yet simultaneously repulsive affair, set to make you feel intense unease with every frame. You have been warned.