Hereditary is the film that the horror genre didn’t know it needed, and the impact it has had and will continue to have is iconic and everlasting.
When Ari Aster’s Hereditary was first released, responses were mixed from critics and audiences alike. Some found it to be the most terrifying film to be released in years, some were mad that they didn’t get the same film that was marketed, others were mixed. In the time that this unsettling psychological thriller has been out, it has grown to become a cult classic among its passionate fanbase, and it still manages to be talked about years later. Why is this? What is it about Aster’s debut that has stuck with audiences?
Here’s the thing: Hereditary IS, in fact, truly petrifying. Not in the traditional sense of horror, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less scary. Aster’s unconventional ghost story preys on fears that many of us have deep down in our subconscious, and masks itself as something cold and inaccessible. It has ghosts, cults, and all of the fun ingredients that make up horror, but it’s what is below the surface that gets to the audience.
Take a look at a classic horror film that scarred audiences this same way, like The Exorcist. What got to people to the point where they felt the need to go as far to ban the film in some places? It’s simple, really. It wasn’t the demonic possession in itself that petrified people, it was the fact that the film enforced the idea that what was happening on screen could happen to ANYONE. By using a child as the titular character going through the traumatic experiences of the film, people felt uneasy. It proved that bad things can happen to anybody, even your children. It has remained a classic for good reason, its impact is something that is monumental not only within the horror genre, but film in general.
Sure, it is a much different time in our culture, and reactions to horror films can be much different due to desensitization. But, at the core, what scared people about The Exorcist isn’t so different from what scared people about Hereditary at all. Aster himself has said that his debut contains aspects of his own life sprinkled in. The brilliance of using a middle aged woman as the main character makes the film feel even more real, and even more eerie to watch.
The ideas of growing up and becoming an adult have always been romanticized within the media. We see kids forced to become adults when they’re barely teenagers, and have their entire lives planned. We all wish for the day when we can just relax, have a family, and be with someone we love. It’s the standard “happy life” that the media has always forced upon us.
Annie, the character whom we follow, is a woman well into her life. Sure, it’s not perfect, but there’s some sort of melancholy about it. She’s been married awhile, her kids are growing up, there can’t be much else to it, right? Once her mother passes, that all changes. What was once a calming life quickly becomes chaos once Annie discovers her own life mirroring that of her mother.
The true horror of abuse is that sometimes we don’t realize how bad it was until much later down the road. Annie doesn’t exactly come to terms with what happened to her until it’s far too late: she knows she’s a victim, but it has never crossed her mind that she could become the same sort of mother that her own mother was to her. It’s a fear that anyone who has dealt with parental abuse has: becoming the person who hurt you in the past, and inflicting the same trauma onto someone else.
It’s not a new idea by any means: works have taken on this twisted idea of being tied to the fate of those before us for ages, and it’s Aster’s use of pace and imagery that allows him to make this topic something his own. It’s a movie that burns slowly and then explodes come the final act, representing the mental state of these characters. It all feels horrifyingly authentic, so much so that even the supernatural elements feel probable. It’s not the fact that the ghosts and demons are there that’ll make your blood run cold, it’s what they represent.
You match all of these dark ideas with loads of technical brilliance, and you have an obvious classic in the making. Aster balances distressing imagery and music, while also managing to get great performances from his cast, all of which the movie is remembered for.
It feels impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning Toni Collette’s emotional portrayal of a grieving and distraught woman, which she plays to perfection. The energy she gives off is comparable to horror legends such as Adjani and Nicholson, and will continue to be talked about. Think about it. How often have you seen the dinner table scene on twitter? Every few months it pops up, and will continue to do so. It’s an absolutely masterful debut from a very promising director whom many already have their eyes on, and if he keeps making things just as layered and horrifyingly intriguing as this, he’ll be on his way to be remembered along with the greats.