Hereditary: When Grief Becomes Terror

What does it take to overcome grief? And how do we outrun the demons that have been chasing us since childhood? For the Graham family, the answer is simple: you can’t…

because it’s Hereditary.

Declared as the film that delivered a new kind of horror, Hereditary became one of the most talked about films of 2018. Some quickly added it to their “scariest films of all time” list while others were disappointed due to the film not living up to their perceived “hype.” Either way, since its premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival on January 21st, the film has garnered a great deal of buzz. For one, it became A24’s highest grossing film worldwide, exceeding all expectations numerically. But that was just one achievement among a long list for the supernatural horror flick.

Hereditary is the feature directorial debut from Ari Aster, who is most known for his short films. Soon enough, however, he would become a force to be reckoned with among the genre’s best directors even after only one feature on his resume. The film follows a grieving family that becomes haunted by an unknown force after the death of the grandmother, Ellen. “My mother was a very secretive and private woman,” describes Annie (Toni Collette) of her late mother, as her guilt of not feeling sad causes her inner turmoil. This turmoil eventually leads Annie to uncover enigmatic family secrets and a sinister destiny that her family can’t outrun, revealing the film’s centerpiece… and it’s that grief can be terrifying.

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There are many reasons why Hereditary is enjoyed by critics and audiences alike. It’s because Aster took elements of classic horror films and incorporated them into new, meaningful ways. For one, the director balances patient storytelling with heavy-hitting sequences that are all perfectly tucked under the film’s emotional umbrella. And as a result, the broad tonal varieties come together to make an end product that is full of effective scares, shocking imagery and unpredictable occurrences that are capable of piercing your mind long after the film is over. Most importantly, Aster avoids the clichés and standard tropes of supernatural horror films to create one that is refreshing yet ironically reminiscent of real-life terror.

One of the best aspects of the film stems from the underlying horrors projected by the lack of dramatic irony. As the story progresses, the audience is forced to learn most of the information as the characters do, which in turn provides a watching experience that is truly riveting. Essentially, we are left to grieve and experience everything with the family, with the added benefit of not being in the know. For those who’ve seen the film, it’s difficult to not get wrapped up in the emotionally-gripping and compelling idea that this family is broken. It’s a common reaction within families when tragedy strikes, after all. But what elevates the horror in Hereditary is that viewers will immediately understand that things can’t possibly end well for the Graham family no matter what they do because it is their fate; and we as an audience can only sit and watch the terrors unfold.

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The best horror films are ones in which audiences can realistically imagine themselves in; and at 56 minutes and 7 seconds into the film, that’s exactly what transpires. The scene is quite simple: the Graham family attempts to enjoy a dinner post tragedy, but what occurs is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film. After a long awkward silence, the family is forced to unveil true feelings about their situation and each other. Once confronted by her son Peter (Alex Wolff), Annie unleashes all of her hurt, guilt and grief in one sitting, leading to a brief but formidable banter that is overwhelming and emotionally draining. It’s not terrifying in a way that’ll make one jump out of his or her seat, but it is capable of elevating heart rates and leaving you in sheer discomfort. It’s unnerving, yet it’s telling how we can be so stricken with grief at times, that we lose all sense of freedom and communication because it can completely occupy your existence. And in turn, all that’s left is anguish and emotional upheaval, resulting in a terror that attacks from within.

As a first feature, Hereditary is certainly a technical achievement for the horror genre. From the incredible sound mixing that offers moments of chaos and sheer panic to the ghostly silences that break into serene yet unnerving transitions, the film has set a new standard for creating perfect build-ups. But the beauty in Aster’s debut extends far past technicalities.

The film is special because it appropriately combines various genres into one without getting lost in its own ambitious tones and directions. Aster’s camerawork, for example, is impressively representative of the Graham family’s disorder. For instance, the miniature models that mimic and depict the family’s life and experiences are created by Annie as a method of reflecting her grief and life in her art. Aster often incorporates slow zoom-outs of these models that it is, at times, hard to distinguish the replica from reality. But once Annie destroys these miniatures, a new awakening is unleashed, and she realizes that she is no longer in control, which is when the horror is amplified. Furthermore, the intricate camera scheme reveals (in other scenes) background activity that is pertinent to the intensity and fear within those moments, ultimately leading to sequences that are effective for storytelling, atmosphere and scares.

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If there’s one thing that audiences should take away from Hereditary, whether they were afraid while watching the film or not, is how every piece of the story’s puzzle brilliantly reflects back on how scary grief can truly be. Grief is indeed one of the most potent multifaceted human responses that can affect people mentally, spiritually, physically, emotionally, and socially. And Hereditary represents this beautifully. Often showcased by the characters actions and interactions with the surrounding supernatural terrors, these characters are almost defined by their sorrows. And it encompasses their being so much that they can’t decipher reality from imagination or don’t realize their impeding fate until it’s too late.

And though the film is considered to be a “slow burn” by many, Hereditary is full of genuine horrors. But it’s less about jump scares and gore, and more a result of the emotional hold that is haunting the Graham family and its ability to penetrate through the screen and into viewers’ minds. And the only way this worked was by the phenomenal cast. Milly Shapiro effectively plays the mysterious Charlie while Gabriel Byrne portrays the father who’s trying to piece together his mentally frail family. Then, there’s Alex Wolff, who unabashedly conveys the panic and dread felt by his contributions to the alarming downfall of his family’s serenity. But to the surprise of no one, it is Toni Collette who is the glue of this film, and she delivers the performance of her career. The scream queen displays her acting range in a film in which horror and grief are at the centerfold. From her subtle body ticks during her monologues to the full-out, belted screams, Collette shines bright in an incredibly bleak, dark and horrifying tale of family tragedy.

In short, Ari Aster has given audiences a new kind of horror in 2018’s Hereditary. The film capitalizes on the feelings that come with family tragedy- grief and fear- and expands upon these themes in compelling ways. With ample time spent on its characters as much as it does the visuals and scares, the film is horror at its best. And due to the relatable self-inflicted horrors the family has put on itself, it will be hard for audiences to remove the terrifying images from their minds. And ultimately, Aster reminds us that when grief becomes foreboding, there’s no escaping the boxed burdens of emotional terror.

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