It was late, nearing 10 o’clock. It was a chilly night, a steep contrast to the warm and sunny day that preceded it. I headed to the theater, my heart already starting to race. I was both excited, and nervous I wouldn’t get a seat. The film didn’t start until midnight, but South By had a reputation for filling their theaters fast. I waited in a line that started with a dozen but quickly bloomed into hundreds. We all waited, anxiously conversing about this new film out of Sundance that was supposedly a new benchmark in terror. We had no idea the true horror that HEREDITARY was about to unleash on us.

Slowly, we shuffled into the theater, the room buzzing with energy. Any semblance of celebrity and fame fell by the wayside as we all nervously grinned at each other, awaiting our cinematic tribunal. Academy Award-winning director, a staff writer for Dread Central and me all sat next to another, each of us giddy with anxious anticipation. Then the film began, and we plunged into an absolute nightmare world that freshman director Ari Aster created.

That is what HEREDITARY was; a nightmare. Not in the sense of a film so scary it’s like a nightmare. It is a film that truly encapsulates the surreal dread and existential confused terror that accompanies our unconscious night terrors.

The Secrets of HEREDITARY

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The film follows the Graham family, led by Matriarch Annie (Toni Collette, in an absolute genre-defining role) and Patriarch Steve (Gabriel Byrnes, playing the straight man to a fractured world). We open on the funeral of Annie’s mother, Joan, who was a secretive and domineering woman.

Annie’s son Peter (Alex Wolff, looking like a young DeNiro, and carrying the surreal narrative like a natural) doesn’t seem to be fazed by the loss. Younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, a greenhorn in the film industry, but a Tony win already in her pocket), though, is caught off guard by the loss, and is devastated by it.

This is all I’m willing to share about the plot. It was all I knew of it going in, and is the best way to see this film; blind.

A Dream Gone Wrong

Ari Aster has created something entirely unique and special in HEREDITARY. Every year, a new indie darling becomes “The Scariest Movie Ever.” We saw it with IT FOLLOWS and THE WITCH. HEREDITARY will carry the same baggage as those other film did, having to compete with a wide audiences rabid expectations.

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But HEREDITARY is different than that. It isn’t a horror film. It is truly and utterly a nightmare. The film moves along on uneven surfaces from the first scene. We’re brought into a world where everything is titled just slightly, an air of surrealism permeating each and every scene. Shot in Utah, the wide mountain ranges that loom in every scene give a sense of both isolation and entrapment, as we are stuck in their majestic but daunting gaze.

It is in this surrealist landscape that the film takes on its dreamlike quality, as everything seems to tilt just a little off center from reality. It is also how the film is able to so effectively fall into its nightmare world.

Unhinged & Broken

Toni Collette’s unhinged performance helps move this surrealist world. She quickly becomes an unreliable narrator, as we attempt to piece together what is actually happening and what is only happening in her grief-stricken mind. Collette is able to transition from calm and measured to manic hysterics to horrified howls seamlessly, keeping the audience off kilter for the entire runtime.

Hereditary
The Doomed Graham Family.

That isn’t to say the entire cast isn’t game. Alex Wolff puts in a masterclass display of a deteriorating mind, a teenager who has the weight of the world, and his family, splintering his mind and his will to live. He is able to transition from a stoned high school student to a broken child of abuse with ease, our own anxiety building with his.

Milly Shapiro plays a pitch-perfect Charlie, a child who feels lost without her grandmother, and who are searching for an outlet. She finds that outlet in the creation of toys, made from discarded plastics and metals, as well as the spare pigeon head.

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Gabriel Byrnes is our straight man, our one mind that stays seemingly sane amidst all this horror. Byrnes sits comfortably in this role of fatherly support and family cohesion. It is through his disbelief that we are able to fully comprehend the horrors that manifest.

An Auteurs Fever Dream

Ari Aster deserves the praise for creating such a surrealist landscape. In his first outing, he has created a piece of cinema that could easily be mistaken for a lost Kubrick film. Each shot is meticulously staged and framed, each part of the world having meaning and purpose.

This is a world that feels lived in, which makes the terror all the more immersive when it hits.

Hereditary
Annie (Toni Collette) Glaring At One Of Her Many Creations.

HEREDITARY defines dread. From the first scene, we are marching closer and closer to the terror, our subconscious trying to claw away from the horror that awaits. Can you remember a nightmare? Can you remember how they can start as a normal dream before slowly tilting into a sinister world? That is what this film does. It is a slow, methodical drop into our unconscious minds worst fears.

A Pure Nightmare

Then, in the third act, in all culminates into hysteria. Slight spoilers below.

The third act of HEREDITARY is the closest I’ve ever seen a film replicate a nightmare. Each scene is staged ever so illogically to knock you off any sort of bearings you still have while delivering some of the greatest scares of the past decade. These aren’t jumpscares; these are scares that linger, waiting for you to discover them, waiting for you to comprehend the situation you are in. Other scares are surreal, delving back into the taboo clouds of our minds.

They show us things that we usually reserve for the dark, silent thoughts that spring into our minds late at night, giving us a slight sense or revolution and horror, before disappearing back into the void. The final scene is such a powder keg of insanity that you feel that you’ve gone too far, that you are truly seeing too deep into this creator’s subconscious.

And then it ends.

We all sat there, shaken. Nobody spoke. Everyone wasn’t fully sure what they just saw. Certain images from the film flashed through our eyes, seared behind our eyelids, waiting to make an appearance again once the lights went out.

21st Century Texas Chainsaw Massacre

HEREDITARY probably won’t be embraced by the general populace. It is an art film before it is a horror film. It’s one auteur’s fever dream, not unlike THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, that is forever imprinted on celluloid. It is also long, and not filled with jump scares or characters that are fun to be around. HEREDITARY is a nightmare, but also a meditation of what we inherit from our parents, both good and bad.

HEREDITARY may be the closest a film has ever gotten to fully realizing the dread of a bad dream. It encapsulates the feeling of helplessness as horrible events occur around you, and the bewildered confusion as the world you thought solid becomes terrifyingly liquid. Ari Aster has created an experience and a magnificent film.

HEREDITARY goes wide June 8th.

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    September 24, 2018 at 1:53 pm

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