October Horrorshow: Hereditary

Some horror flicks are designed to scare, while others are designed to provoke dread. They are two very distinct emotions. Fear has a crisp flavor, and can be as extreme as panic or as mild as butterflies in one’s stomach. Dread is something more profound. It’s an emotion of desperation and inevitability that makes fear look like mother’s milk. Dread is the certainty, not just the possibility, that something very bad is about to happen. Dread is oppression. Dread is doom. Which makes a film that revolves around dread something of a difficult watch.

From this year, Hereditary is the feature-length debut from writer/director Ari Aster. Hereditary follows the plight of the Graham family. There’s Annie (Toni Collette); her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne); and teenaged son and daughter Peter and Charlie (Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro).

There’s just been a death in the family. Annie’s mother has died after a long illness, and although the two of them had been estranged at different times in their lives, Annie’s mother spent her last days before hospice in Annie and Steve’s house. Annie is feeling deep grief and bewilderment over her mother’s death, to the point she seeks out group therapy to cope. There we viewers learn a little family history. There is tragedy in Annie’s past, with suicides taking both her father and her brother. There is madness in the family, as hinted at by the title of the film.

Meanwhile, Annie’s children are not well-adjusted and happy teenagers. Peter is drifting along through high school, more concerned about smoking pot than getting good grades. Charlie is something else altogether. More than just an introvert, Charlie appears to have something wrong with her mind — perhaps a budding psychosis.

The first act of the film is punctuated by a shocking moment of violence that I won’t spoil here, but it’s this moment, and not the death of Annie’s mother, that sends the Graham family into a downward spiral from which it does not recover.

This first act is very hard to watch. Aster’s screenplay and how he filmed it descend over the viewer like the blackest of shrouds. Houses of grief are never pleasant places, to be sure, but the situation in the Graham household feels not just permanent, but the beginning of the end of this family. This is aided by an excellent soundtrack by Colin Stetson. His music does much to evoke the bleak mood of the film.

The first 40 minutes of this film are as hard to watch as some of the more awful sequences in Eraserhead or Raging Bull. There were moments when I wondered if it was worth sticking with this film — when I questioned if there was any viewing enjoyment to be had. This goes back to the idea of fear versus dread in horror. Fear, as tough an emotion as it can be, can also be an exhilarating experience. Fear calls forth reserves of adrenaline and all sorts of other good time hormones, flooding the brain with an intoxicating effect. That’s what makes scary horror flicks so fun to watch. Dread has no such upside to it. I’ve never once sought out dread as a feeling because, unlike fear, there is no sweet aftereffect. Dread is dread, and the only thing good about dread is when it mercifully departs. That makes dread-based horror just about the opposite of entertaining.

But, I stuck with it, because this is a very good film. In the second act, things begin to get supernatural. It’s unclear until the last act if there really are supernatural shenanigans, or if all this grief and dread has broken some minds in the Graham household. The film slips into some comfortable horror tropes at this point, as well, but Aster manages to make these familiar snippets feel original.

Get through the first act, and Hereditary becomes a more conventional horror flick as it continues on, but Aster, despite this being his first feature, is a skilled filmmaker. His pace is tight, as is the storytelling. There is little to no fault in his direction.

As for the performances, the film is dominated by Toni Collette. Her character is the very personification of stress. Her grief feels real and complete. I doubt I’ll see a better performance from another actor or actress this year.

Hereditary is one hell of a horror flick. Its psychological aspects are much more disturbing than the supernatural stuff, to the point that I was a little disappointed where Aster finally chose to go, but that doesn’t stop this from being a very powerful film.