The Horror Hype Train Was Right: 'Hereditary' Lives Up To Its Festival Buzz

By James Jay Edwards
Released: June 8, 2018
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When the matriarch of the Graham family passes away, her daughter's family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry.

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Film Review
Every year, there seems to be a movie that comes out of its festival run with "scarier than The Exorcist" buzz. We've seen it recently with movies like It Follows, Raw, and The Witch. And now, we're seeing it again with Hereditary.

A word of caution; the best way to experience Hereditary is completely blind, without reading a summary or seeing a trailer. Actually, avoid the trailer at all costs, as it includes a massive spoiler (and one that was intentionally placed there as a result of a dialogue edit that is not in the movie). The next paragraph is a basic synopsis for all of the "what is it about" types, but if that's not you, skip down to the paragraph after it.

Milly Shapiro, Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, and Alex Wolff in Hereditary, photo by James Minchin, courtesy of A24.

Hereditary is about a visual artist named Annie Graham (Toni Collette from The Sixth Sense) whose grandmother passes away. Along with her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne from Louder Than Bombs), and her children, Peter (My Friend Dahmer's Alex Wolff) and Charlie (newcomer Milly Shapiro), Annie tries to get on with her life after putting her mother's affair's in order. Before long, however, strange happenings plague the family, forcing them to wonder if grandma is still somewhere with them.

So, essentially, it's a ghost story. Writer/director Ari Aster makes his feature film debut with Hereditary, but he's already got the filmmaking chops of a seasoned pro. Aster has a firm command of both the visual language of film and the elusive art of sound design, and that command is on full display here. A much more subtle movie than something like, say, The Amityville Horror or Insidious, Hereditary reads like a fresh combination of a haunted house movie and a creepy kid flick, with an ever present undercurrent of occult mystery simmering right beneath the surface.

Milly Shapiro in Hereditary, photo by Reid Chavis, courtesy of A24.

Hereditary is one unseen twist after another, unfolding slowly yet deliberately though a series of nail-biting suspense scenes that lead to more than a few "holy shit" moments as the film goes on. At a hair over two hours, it's a long movie (especially for horror), and it is glacially paced, but each individual scene is essential. It's the scenes themselves that crawl like snails, widely spacing out their revelations and expositions before finally moving on to the next indispensable bit of information. Hereditary gives the impression of being a slow burn horror flick, but there's plenty to see and hear, and all of it is absolutely necessary.

Another fascinating aspect of Hereditary is how it handles certain subjects that have become horror movie tropes. There are a number of settings in the film like classrooms and churches and such that seem to have been pulled right out of some other consumable teen horror flick like Truth or Dare or Happy Death Day. But, instead of playing the locations and situations for cheap jump scares, Hereditary goes more for abject subliminal horror, choosing to cause general discomfort and unsettledness in the viewer rather than making them scream out loud. That's the difference between Blumhouse and A24. Blumhouse may be scary, but A24 is intense. We've seen it from A24 before with movies like Green Room and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. And now we're seeing it with Hereditary.

Toni Collette in Hereditary, photo courtesy of A24.

Because there has been so much hype surrounding Hereditary, there's bound to be some backlash once it hits wide release. I can already hear the internet decrying that it's "not a horror movie" (which is ludicrous) or that it's "not scary" (which may be valid, depending on what scares you). Hereditary will probably run into the same opposition from the general public as The Witch, because it's not the movie that audiences expect that it will be. Personally, I loved The Witch. And I love Hereditary.
The score for Hereditary was composed by Colin Stetson, who is best known as the saxophonist for modern rock artists Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, but he has also contributed music to the scores for films like The Rover and Arrival. His soundtrack for Hereditary is abrasive and dissonant, almost Joseph Bishara-esque in its clanging and squealing. The music borders on sound design, and actually does echo the sound effects in some places, so that it all comes together into a sonic landscape that will not allow the viewer's unconscious guard to come down. Although it's not going to sell many soundtrack albums, Stetson's score is an essential element to the Hereditary experience.

Gabriel Byrne, Toni Collette, and Alex Wolff in Hereditary, photo courtesy of A24.
Scary Factor
The claims of "scarier than The Exorcist" that have come with the hype train of Hereditary are, for the most part, false, but only because it's a different kind of movie. There are very few jump scares, and there's nothing cheap at all about the ones that are there. Most of the fear that is generated by Hereditary comes from the simple tension that is expertly crafted by the film. Much like The Witch, Hereditary does not let its audience relax, and although it does dip its toe into some of the more typical horror puddles, it doesn't use any of it as a crutch. Hereditary is a surprisingly economical fright flick, and while it may not stop any heartbeats, it will definitely cause a few people to lose some sleep after seeing it.

Alex Wolff in Hereditary, photo courtesy of A24.

Drama, Horror, Mystery
Release Date
June 8, 2018
MPAA Rating
Production Designer
Casting Director
Music Score