‘Hereditary’ Scares On Two Levels at SXSW

Toni Collette stars as the matriarch of the Graham family in A24's new horror film "Hereditary."

When “Hereditary” premiered at Sundance earlier this year, The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd called it “the most traumatically terrifying horror movie in ages.” Terrifying it is: first-time director and writer Ari Aster has created a masterpiece of horror that does what typical scream-bait blockbusters do not. “Hereditary” instead draws on both beloved modes of the genre — ghosts, haunted houses, witches and devilish possession which draw on physical horrors — and deeper, psychological anxieties that work together to recreate what nightmares are made of.

“Hereditary” stars Toni Collette as Annie, the seemingly sane matriarch, to a family cast of weirdos. The film opens with Annie’s mother, Ellen, having just passed away, and the initial struggle as to how each member will deal with the loss. The world of “Hereditary” is not entirely familiar, but Aster immediately clues us in. Here, strange friends of the deceased Ellen smile ominously at Annie’s disturbing daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) from distances at the funeral, or across the street from her school.

Things quickly unravel in the Graham household as shocking, traumatic events begin to happen and supernatural occurrences take place in the house. Our initial window into the world of the Graham family through Annie is gradually tainted as we learn the depths of her psyche through the different characters she meets and, most notably, the interactions she has with our her son Peter (Alex Wolff). Family relationships begin to disintegrate and deeply traumatic psychological truths surface as the monsters come (quite literally) out of the woodworks.

For those looking for the typical genre jumpscare, there are strange things in the periphery, modest gore and encounters with the supernatural. Those looking for a film that operates on a deeper level, exposing the dark and distressing elements of a broken family unit, will be similarly pleased with a quite impressive, realistic psycho-drama.

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The symbolism supporting this analysis is incredibly rewarding as well, if you look deeper into certain scenes between Annie and her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who writes off her premonitions as a part of Annie’s ignorance towards her mental illness. The miniature dolls and sceneries Annie makes — which depict scenes from her actual life — are similarly reminiscent of the family’s lack of agency to change a fate they’re destined to fall into.

The film is a slow build, but patient viewers will not be disappointed by its climax, in which Aster proves himself as a fantastic director of horror. Certain scenes in the film — like when Peter is sitting in class and overcome by a certain force — remained ingrained in my memory almost a week after attending the film’s screening at South By Southwest in Austin on Sunday evening.

In a Q&A after the film, moderator Elijah Wood pointed to Aster’s choice to entirely eliminate sound during a particularly intense scene between mother and son, noting that the choice allows the two competing horrific elements of film — the real-life frights and the more supernatural scares — to mesh into a truly hideous moment of truth between Annie and Peter. Moments like these are rare gems that make moviegoers anticipate what might come next from a directorial debut.

“Hereditary” will hit theaters in early June.

Email Natalie Whalen at [email protected]

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