‘Hereditary’: What We Know About the Scariest Movie of 2018


By now you may have heard the buzz around the 2018 Sundance Film Festival’s horror-darling Hereditary, the first feature film from director Ari Aster that premiered as a midnight showing to some of the most intense reactions of the year. I went ahead and researched everything I could about the film, which is being touted as our generation’s The Exorcist. It is set to premier June 8th. Don’t worry, I won’t be sharing any spoilers.

A.A. Dodd of the AV Club had this to say after watching Hereditary: "This isn’t a scary movie. It’s pure emotional terrorism, gripping you with real horror, the unspeakable kind, and then imbuing the supernatural stuff with those feelings. It didn’t play me like a fiddle. It slammed on my insides like a grand piano."

Hereditary stars one of my favorite actresses, Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine, United States of Tara), along with Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects), Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro.

Here is the official synopsis of the film:
When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. The more they discover, the more they find themselves trying to outrun the sinister fate they seem to have inherited.

Apparently the film holds all the typical ghostly cards in its hand: séances, objects moving on their own, mass infestations of insects, and a death-mystery to solve. However, the massive interest in this film couldn’t be based on these overdone tropes alone; it seems that the meat exists in the portrait it simultaneously paints of inherited family trauma and grief.

Here is the trailer, but be warned, some have said that they feel it gives too much away, and that it’s better to go in cold. I watched it before I heard that though, so if you don’t want to watch it, just trust me that this movie looks and feels terrifying on a whole different level. This is some deeply freaky stuff.

Hereditary is coming out of the production company A24 Films, a rising star responsible for some huge projects in the past few years, including The Witch, Room, Moonlight, Lady Bird, and The Disaster Artist. Anyone who saw The Witch knows that this studio cares about producing what I would call “good” horror movies, in that they have good acting, good direction, and good production. They look good, the music is good, and they are doing something new. A24’s films are always very original productions. Whether you like their films or not, you have to admit that they are telling stories, even horror stories, that have not been told before, and with all the horror films that are being hastily remade, we should count that as a victory. And listen, don't get me wrong, I love a bad horror movie, but its nice to see the true potential for this genre expanding out.

I watched all three of director Ari Asters’ short films, The Strange Thing About the Johnson’s, Munchausen, and BASICALLY, in hopes of getting a feel for his style.

Innocent-looking director Ari Aster 

Innocent-looking director Ari Aster 

Let me tell you, The Strange Thing About the Johnson’s is NOT for the faint of heart. I don’t just mean this strictly from a horror movie standpoint; I say this because the content is extremely taboo and disturbing, tackling incest in a way that hasn’t been done before. The controversy around this film is thick and complicated, and I’m not going to go into it now. But be warned—it’s hard to watch. 

Munchausen is easier to watch and stylistically impressive. It attempts the structure, content, sound, and color of an animated Pixar film, while using real actors who are seen but never heard speaking. As teased by the title, the short film is about a young man leaving for college and his mother who loves him just a little too much, going as far as to make him sick so that he doesn’t leave her again (a psychological disorder called Munchausen by proxy). Unsurprisingly, things go wrong. Though the plot isn’t anything very new or interesting, the way the film is shot is a testament to the creativity and keen eye of the director. 

Finally, his short film BASICALLY is honestly my favorite (even though it doesn’t fall in the horror category). This one is difficult to explain; lets just say it tackles some decently deep philosophical questions through the lens of a vapid (but intelligent), rich teenaged girl. The writing is great, the acting is great, and the sets are incredible. Aster has an eye for design, that much is clear, and there is a disturbing beauty that consistently cuts through his work.

Variety writer Owen Gleiberman had this to say about the film, after expressing regret that Sundance chose not to categorize Hereditary as a drama, likely because horror still isn’t taken seriously in our culture, despite the success and depth of films like Get Out: 

Official film poster

Official film poster

"...But what viewers will discover is that the movie, unlike almost every mainstream horror film you see these days, has the substance to match its scares. It gets at something sophisticated: the way that mental and emotional damage becomes part of a family’s spirit, and is therefore passed on as if it were…a spirit. Wherever you stand on the subject of paranormal activity, this is a drama attuned to the ghosts of parent-child communion that live in all of us.” 

A24’s other popular horror film The Witch came out in 2015 and was set in 1630s New England. The Witch is another example of a horror movie with a soul: it follows a puritan family who has chosen to leave their community to live alone in the woods. The infant of the family is soon stolen mysteriously, and the the family slowly unravels amidst strange supernatural events. But the real story behind the horror is that of a family torn apart by religious hysteria, as well as a look at the assumption of women as traditionally evil, and their use as scapegoats in colonial America.

When AA Dowd described Hereditary as “pure emotional terrorism,” it felt like a perfect descriptor for another recent "good" horror film, the fall blockbuster Mother! from director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). Mother! was another horror film that attempted to get at a deeper meaning: that of the relationship between humans, God, and the earth. I left the theatre after an audio and visual assault of terrifying chaos, and I felt that terror for the rest of the night. And for me, a hardened horror viewer, that is a serious feat.

Just like The Witch and Mother!, Hereditary promises horror of two kinds: our beloved genre that provides jump-scares, nightmarish images, and a thumping mystery at its core, as well as another kind of horror: the horror of our own reality, and the dark things that happen here that need no dressing up. Horror is slowly becoming more and more respected by critics and viewers alike with films like The Witch, Mother!, Get Out, and It Follows, so we can only expect (and hope for) more features that combine horror with great writing, great acting, and something deeper to say. Because even without monsters, ghosts, and cinematic serial killers, our world is scary enough.