Hereditary ★★★★½

Added to: 2018 Ranked, A24 Ranked & Films that personally disturbed me the most

*Minor Spoilers*

Hereditary succeeds in creating a kind of suspense that only few horror films these days are able to manifest. It’s no warped idea we have that a great part of contemporary horror cinema is made up of jump scare after jump scare. While a handful of films have shown that other means of conveying horror are also possible, few have done it on the same level as Hereditary.

Because, what essentially is a jump scare? How does it come to be? In a most basic outline, one jumpscare is often made up of a buildup, a setting that is out of the ordinary, that doesn’t feel right; followed by a quick moment where the tension gets relieved. Often, after the initial jumpscare, much of the scariness is already gone. As soon as the horror gets revealed, people are able to breathe again as they know what the scary thing is. No matter how much a monster growls or squirms after it has surprised its victims, it (mostly) doesn’t regain the level of scariness it had in that short-lived moment. Hereditary is basically a jumpscare, yet it is stretched over the entire length of the film and that simple concept perfectly explains why this film is so goddamn scary.

As the film starts out, the mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette) passes away. Nonetheless, her death doesn’t seem to bring much grief with Annie. She openly tells how she had a confusing relationship with her and how her family suffered from many kinds of mental illnesses. Annie's daughter, however, was extremely close to her grandmother and it appears as if the ill effects of her grandmother have been marked on the child herself. She’s a lonely girl who spends most of her time creating disturbing little puppets and drawings. Then there’s the older brother who starts out as a simple pothead with minor aspirations. Following the death of the grandmother, a strange atmosphere surrounds the house and when, on top of that uncanny feeling, the daughter gets decapitated in a freak accident, the whole house seems to slowly turn over itself, quietly but surely growing into a dark, desolate place. Along the way, as Annie, her son and her husband try to cope with the drama, increasingly odd things start happening. A presence can be felt wherever they go and it soon turns Annie into a complete mental case.

While the odd behavior is first diagnosed as a case of PTSD, slowly but surely, the film uncovers signs of something greater happening. The true beauty of Hereditary lies in how it slowly starts to solve the whole mystery in the third act. Up until that moment, the scariest thing that happened was probably the death of the daughter. A lot of the second act doesn’t even become that scary. It becomes unnerving for sure and you can feel something sinister going on in the background, but it never throws anything extremely scary at you. Instead, it drops tiny, little bits of information, small clues to the solution of the mystery. It builds up slowly and surely and then grabs your head to smash it into the floor. Compared to almost anything that came before it, the final 20 to 25 minutes are utterly soul-crushing. It’s not that a lot of the conclusion comes out of nowhere. In fact, everything we see happening had been (almost too clearly) foreshadowed in earlier scenes. Yet despite some supernatural events, the realization that what you feared was happening, is actually happening, in all of its gory and fucked up nature, is what scares you so deeply in the end.

Up until the grand finale, all kinds of unsettling hints have been dropped and over the course of a mere 90 minutes that are made to feel like three hours, these are left to simmer in the back of your mind. You know something horrifying is breathing down the back of your neck. You are given the pieces of the puzzle, bit by bit and then, through a slow-burning end that keeps your heart racing for an entire 20 minutes, what you feared so deeply, becomes a gruesome reality. This is the moment the jumpscare kicks in. During the whole film, this atmosphere has been building and building and now it gets relieved. It’s inherently the basic concept of suspense stretched out to the extreme. Hereditary doesn’t live on a lot of moments of quick relief but instead slowly flexes the air around you, making it harder and harder to breathe until it becomes almost unbearable and that is when it decides to hit you. In a way, the film’s finale (as contradictory as it sounds) feels a lot like the b-grade horror films that are so despised these days. The end features both an actual jump scare and loads of supernatural appearances that, in any other case, would appear as totally unrealistic and even somewhat forced, but because of the patient way in which it gets presented here, it doesn’t just scare you, it twists your emotions and confuses you to the point where you aren't sure how to respond anymore. That whole sequence that is just one scary concept after the other, comes with the endlessly awaited moment of relief. Where those two, conflicting emotions hit each other, that is where true horror is conveyed.

Ari Aster, in his feature film debut, shows an enormous amount of craftsmanship. He successfully avoided the typical pitfall of jump scares and created a sense of dread that comes out of every pore of the cinematic tools he has at his disposal. He elevated Toni Collette’s performance as a grieving mother into that of a downright monster. The camera isn’t pressed against the actors faces all the time and is instead placed to create unusually wide scenes, artfully recreating the sense of a dollhouse (the mother’s job). Combined with the expert lighting, the scenes never come off as something unintelligible. It is always very clear what is seen in the frame and the precise way Aster creates shadows and darkness make some of its scariest images. The score, while sometimes sounding like a party is going on in another part of the cinema, is strikingly subdued. Here the jump scares are equally absent. No loud brushes of noise, but instead a calm continuation of the pulse of the viewer’s own heartbeat and growing anxieties. Especially the final piece of music, which on its own sounds like an uplifting ceremonial piece, creates the final bit of glaring contrast in the film. And it rightfully does so. It creates a very tangible feeling around the supernatural situation that is finally concluded in the final scene. It makes this horrifying story into something realistic that appears as if it could happen to anyone, living on the same kind of tangible fears that films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist created before it and to which Hereditary is rightfully compared.

There are only a few films out there that I have seen and that were capable of letting me shiver from the moment the film finished till the morning after when I woke up, but this is one of them. Despite it being utterly terrifying, I’d happily see more horror films like this, ingrained in true human fear and crafted with the hand of a rising master.

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