I wasn’t prepared for this. But considering how inventive Ari Aster’s Hereditary is, not being prepared is the best way to go when viewing this for the first time.

Hereditary is the feature film debut for the 30-something year old New Yorker, and despite his age and lack of filmmaking experience, Aster has created the year’s scariest horror which may go down as one of the scariest ever.

Hereditary stars Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd and Gabriel Byrne, and they represent a family in strife. Collette plays Annie Graham and her mother just passed away. Hereditary begins at her mother’s funeral, and quickly audiences can tell something’s not right. Annie admits during her eulogy that she wasn’t close with her mother, and as the story progresses it’s also certain that she’s not close with her two children, Peter (Wolff) and Charlie (Shapiro). Steve (Byrne) is Annie’s husband and he is doing his best to keep the family from falling apart, but everyone in the Graham family is walking on eggshells – seemingly it’s only a matter of time before someone breaks a few eggs.

One of Hereditary’s biggest highlights is Collette, and she provides one of her best performances ever. The Oscar-nominated Australian actress is surprising and shocking as Annie. Collette expresses a wide range of emotions – Annie is sad, angry, hysterical, remorseful and even vengeful. What’s even scarier when it comes to Collette’s Annie is that she’s unpredictable – she acts in ways that are shocking and unimaginable. It’s a phenomenal turn because it’s further proof of Collette’s talent and also because much of Annie’s actions are altogether organic and real.

Normally the Academy doesn’t recognize horrors, but Collette is so incredible the Academy needs to seriously reconsider. They’ve made exceptions before – Collette’s lone Oscar nomination was for her turn as Lynn Sear in 1999’s The Sixth Sense.

Another highlight is Aster. Besides directing, Aster wrote Hereditary and he uses a classic setup to create a narrative that is emotional and unsettling. Aster was able to coax strong performances from his entire cast – newcomer Shapiro is memorable because of her questionable actions and creepy disposition. Wolff is the hopeful beacon of hope who’s just as troubled as his mother. Byrne has always been strong and steady in past roles – he provides more of the same here although you can tell he’s alone fighting a losing battle. And Ann Dowd, who’s no stranger to playing unsettling roles, represents a source of relief and comfort for Annie as her character has lost family members, too.

Outside of Aster’s talent for coaxing excellent performances, he uses inventive camerawork (Pawel Pogorzelski served as cinematographer) and incorporates a moody score (courtesy of Colin Stetson) to help create Hereditary’s piercing tension. Add to that his willingness to build that tension over time, Aster provides plenty of raw energy and enthusiasm to a feature whose parts are (in all honesty) old and used. More succinctly, Aster has taken old tropes, cleaned them up and presented audiences with something new and fresh and freakishly scary.

For me, this is a superior horror, but I walked out of my screening understanding Hereditary will undoubtedly divide audiences. A24 produced Aster’s film and they produced 2016’s The Witch which at the time of its release was also hailed as the scariest film of all time. The Witch ultimately produced extreme opinions – one half thought the hype was legit while the other half thought it was pretentious and not remotely scary. Both Hereditary and The Witch subscribe to the idea of creating mood by “simmering” and taking its time, while its scares are presented rather than thrown in your face. I appreciate that kind of storytelling, but that path is typically not a crowd-pleaser.

I don’t believe for a second Aster made Hereditary for viewers, though. He, like The Witch director Robert Eggers, has a passion for horror and he wants to pay homage to the genre with a film that has an old school feel with a present-day look. Regardless, Hereditary is an impressive debut from a man whose potential is sky-high. Horror is in a good place and, with Aster around, the genre will continue to thrive.

5 stars out of 5


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