About a third of the way into Hereditary, the Sundance horror film that has ousted the genre’s hyperbolic headliners, “Best horror film in the last decade” types like The Witch, It Follows, The Babadook, Get Out etc., I was traumatized. I woed in the throes of a fictional family tragedy, and I realized at once how rare it was that a film decided to hurt me. The pain, so throbbing, I anxiously awaited the supernatural horror — as if it’d help me escape my misery.
But the horror inherits that trauma and the pain never subsides. Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) mother has passed, and she fears her schizophrenia and paranoia runs in the bloodline. Maybe it does. Individual ailments, like deadly allergic reactions, mysteriously spread amongst kin. The Grahams bear no agency in the procedure of their attrition, which constitutes the root of most fears — those things you can’t control. But Hereditary offers more than inexorable mutilation. It flexes a nasty notion of the world, a genuine misanthropy that won’t relent, a hate that won’t give.
The opening shot transitions from a miniature of the family’s home to its real-life equivalent, which is peopled, and as characters attempt to flee their horrors they’re shot with the wide lens, running across interiors built on sets like dolls that have it coming. Writer/Director Ari Aster has made a vile film. Its hatred for humankind is authentic, unflinching, and free of any relieving fault or folly. We wish it weren’t so convincing.
Aster references Mike Leigh, The Ice Storm, and Peter Greenaway as dormant inspirations for Hereditary, which could pass as a seething domestic drama. But Aster’s misanthropy runs deeper, he wants to exercise tragedy on the Graham family with macabre utensils. Horror opens the door for the greater, undeserved, punishments that he wishes to enact upon them. It seems they have it coming for no other reason than the fact that it could — and that they can't stop it.
The film is mean, and that does something to its horror. It’s not just that the Graham’s have no agency, it’s that we believe they don’t; we believe Aster’s pessimism. It’s torture. Unlike The Witch, It Follows, and The Babadook, which were lauded by critics but received raucous backlash from mainstream audiences, Hereditary will do them in too. Jump scares are earned here through manipulative misdirection and mischievous sound design. Frames are held ‘til you spot what lurks in their corners, and Aster places his most repugnant gores front and center.
Horror always aims to exploit its audience. But not in the way Hereditary wants to exploit you. It needs you to hurt, and it wants you perturbed. You believe it does, because Toni Collette gives the performance of her career. You know it hates you, because Aster plays us the same way he does his dolls. This perverted depth to its motivation to abuse us adds legitimacy to our injury, as if Hereditary is the hurt we deserve.