Film Review: “Hereditary” — The Scary Surface of Things

Hereditary has top notch acting, a gorgeous look, and some genuinely terrifying moments that linger.

Hereditary, written and directed by Ari Aster. Screening at Regal Fenway Stadium, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and Kendall Square Cinema.

Toni Collette in scene from “Hereditary”

By Peg Aloi

Thanks to a glossy trailer and plenty of advance hype (which seems to surround so many horror films these days), Hereditary, the feature debut of filmmaker Ari Aster, is poised to be the this year’s scary juggernaut straddling the arthouse/Cineplex divide. No doubt it will be more successful than some of its predecessors, including The Witch (which some viewers walked out of, alienated by its slow pacing and authentic period dialect), or The Babadook (not bloody enough for some).

But it will perhaps not find the audience it should because distributor/producer A24 still has not learned how to properly market its horror properties. A24 placed The Witch in mainstream mall theaters, instead of where it belonged, arthouses. And while critical response was generally enthusiastic, audiences hated it with a passion. The excellent article “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” explores the reasons why many self-proclaimed “horror fans” were loud vocal critics of The Witch. For the last two years I have bemoaned the average filmgoer’s Philistine sensibilities, including those who thought a soundbyte from Stephen King guaranteed The Witch could be enjoyed along the same lines of Paranormal Activity or Cloverfield (derivative films that have spawned even more derivative sequels, and which are themselves derivative of the most original horror film of the last two decades, The Blair Witch Project).

Pity the filmgoers for whom paying close attention, engaging with symbolism and metaphor, noticing craft and aesthetics, and appreciating slow-building tension are not worth their time or money. Recent variations as well as new interpretations have yielded entertaining, intelligent genre fare, but the marketing animal is a creature of ironclad habit, and we will no doubt continue to see pre-release hype that oversells a film’s scare power. All that said, in the case of Hereditary, you can believe the hype — for once.

In terms of pedigree, Hereditary is impressive. It comes with a stellar cast, including Australian actress Toni Collette, whose fine talents deserve the juiciest roles that the industry can toss her way. She plays Annie, the daughter of a woman who has just died and, as the film opens, the machinery of the funeral seems to have left her numb, mystified by her lack of grief. Gabriel Byrne is not his usual brooding hothead here, but does just fine as her understanding husband Steve. Oldest son Peter is played by Alex Wolff (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Patriots Day), a young and gifted actor. The small but crucial role of daughter Charlie is played by Milly Shapiro, whose fey face and intense affect are mesmerizing.

The family gets through the funeral and returns to normal almost immediately. But Annie, an artist who creates miniature dollhouse-like sculptures that she is readying for a new exhibition (an early stunning shot zooms in on one of these works, an exact replica of her son’s room), feels the need to attend a grief support group. There she meets a woman named Joan who befriends her (the always wonderful Ann Dowd); she  seems very interested in getting to know Annie better. Annie’s grief over her mom’s demise is almost nonexistent; indeed, her testimonial at the support group meeting is a litany of reasons for why she hated her mother. Back at the house, she continues to work on her strange domestic dioramas; we see some strange things in the huge wood-trimmed bungalow they live in, such as barely-recognizable words handwritten on the the wallpaper. Books on spiritualism and the occult are found among her mother’s things. Charlie’s room contains unusual sculptures that are like dolls made of odds and ends, and we see her working on them with intense focus.

Not long after Annie attends the meeting, seventeen year old Peter asks to borrow the car to attend a party. Annie insists that he take his thirteen year old sister Charlie: an artistic but socially awkward child. He agrees, but ditches her to go smoke weed with his friends and a girl he has a crush on. Charlie eats some cake full of walnuts and that causes a severe allergic reaction. Peter has to drive her to the hospital. But, on the way, there’s a horrifying accident — Charlie is killed. The family is shattered with grief; Peter is racked with guilt.

Annie falls behind on her deadline to get her work ready for a gallery show. She feels compelled to recreate Charlie’s accident via art, a decision that Steve finds disturbing. Annie runs into Joan at the mall and tells her what happened. Joan invites her over to discuss her use of a medium’s services to contact her dead grandson. Annie is disturbed by what transpires, but intrigued; she explores the process on her own, dipping into her mother’s assortment of strange books. Joan gives Annie a script to recite, and soon enough the house is lit with glowing candles and very spooky things start happening.

Hereditary does not offer a specific or even terribly coherent explanation of its character’s motivations. It may have been helpful, but the “less is more” approach to horror can be satisfying. There are some hints that Annie inherits her curiosity about the occult from her mother. What else is inherited, as the title suggests? Annie is also something of a narcissist. Maybe even a monster; we get the idea her mother may have been, too. Collette’s performance is a marvel of meta-emotions: some of them genuine, some performative, some artificial and manipulative. The drive behind her inscrutable behavior may also be key to understanding her strange miniature artworks; she creates convincing imitations of the world around her, but they’re dwarfed by the enormous tragedies in her family’s life. Her willful attempts to create chaos (instead of artistic order) in the midst of her family’s  woe is indeed unnerving.

And then, there really is some supernatural shit going on, too. The film uses sound expertly, sonically telegraphing unseen things that end up being shocking or disturbing. Overall, the lack of jump scares and cliched use of music accompanying creeping tension enhance the power of the weird and unexpected imagery. Yes, I’d have liked a bit more context: and some justification for the ending, which, while interesting and haunting, feels rushed and tacked on. Fans of occult-tinged horror will be inspired to speculate about what’s really going on here. But I wonder if other filmgoers will be happy to have so much left unexplained. Then again, the problem here is symptomatic of the genre. The lack of a coherent throughline is a fairly common snafu in horror films these days, yet it doesn’t seem to be hurting their star ratings or box office numbers. At least Hereditary has top notch acting, a gorgeous look, and some genuinely terrifying moments that linger.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at

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