Hereditary’s bravura opening shot moves through a workshop of miniature dollhouses, inching closer and closer to the inside of one of them until, through movie-magic, the room has become life-sized—with real humans inside it. It’s a foreboding sign of what’s to come—of the unnerving imagery, technical proficiency, and weighty artfulness with which writer and director Ari Aster tells his disquieting debut feature with. Aster has smuggled a corrosive family drama into a horror film, exploring the way that grief, trauma, and heritage can create deep schisms in family units.

These dollhouses are the work of artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette), whose work recreates spaces and moments from her own life in miniature. Her mother, the Graham family matriarch, has just died. The tragedy puts a strain on the family’s already fraught relationships. Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is determined to keep the peace to an unhelpful degree. Their teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), withdraws into music and bongs. Charlie (Milly Shapiro), their youngest and the deceased’s favourite, collects odd trinkets and grows increasingly anxious. Annie begins to visit a support group, where she reveals a long history of familial trauma. Annie’s desperation for closure puts her into the orbit of Joan (Ann Dowd), another grieving mother who seems all too willing to help with some decidedly unconventional methods. This is as much as I am willing to divulge; going in knowing as little as possible is the best way to experience Hereditary.

Aster’s direction is confident and precise, in a marked diversion from the style of most modern studio horror films. A lot of the movie takes place in wide or mid shots, with slow, ominous movements through the environment instilling a creeping sense of dread. Many of the shots are also framed to position the environment and characters like dollhouses, functioning not just as a reference to Annie’s profession but also as a potent metaphor for the family’s lack of agency. The film is in the style of 70s slow-burn horror classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now,structured around a build of almost unbearable tension. There are some more traditional, conventional scares, but they’re executed with a skill and craftsmanship that elevates them above cheap jolts. What makes these scares work is the deep level of emotional terror and cosmic horror lying underneath them. So much of this is experienced subjectively, through the character’s reactions. When unsettling or horrific events occur the camera often holds on the characters face, lingering for just a little bit too long before revealing what they’re looking at, to maximise audience discomfort.

The sound design is equally important in maintaining the movie’s menacing atmosphere. The soundtrack, from avant-garde musician Colin Stetson, creates an atonal soundscape of alien sounding drones, saxophones and clangs that builds to a grand, ironically triumphant finale.

The script charts the family’s disintegration with equal parts emotional realism, black humour, and unnerving surrealism. Underneath the horror lies a traditional family drama, as the Graham’s underlying conflicts and resentments boil up to the surface in excruciatingly familiar confrontations. My smug assumptions of the movie were subverted with a big early twist—a shocking moment that even genre fans probably won’t see coming, that boldly moves the film from just funhouse horror to painfully raw territory.

Ensuring the script’s success is the main cast, all of whom bring their A-game to a genre not renowned for delivering excellent performances. Molly Shapiro is solid as the eccentric child whose arc is surprising—to say the least—and Gabriel Byrne’s restraint as Steve captures a man just trying to keep everyone together, barely realising the well of repressed feelings he’s helping to create even in himself. Toni Collette gives a tour-de-force performance that ranks as one of the best of her career. It’s an emotionally difficult role, one that requires her to move between fear, bitter anger, grief, weariness, and even dark humour (some of her outbursts are genuinely hilarious)—sometimes in the same scene. She nails it, avoiding any hint of vanity or sentimentality that could hurt the character. Annie is a mass of unprocessed trauma and baggage just waiting to explode—and explode it does. While Collette deserves the acclaim she’s getting, Alex Wolff’s performance is nearly as good. He portrays bone-deep, genuine terror in a way that’s leaps and bounds above most teenage performances in horror films.

The horror genre has always been used to visualise the unimaginable, the taboo topics and ideas that don’t get discussed in polite company. In this case, it’s anxieties surrounding family and parenthood. Hereditary tackles the absurdity of family units, and the idea of family as a curse that you can’t escape. Here, the horror feels inspired by the powerlessness and despair that has infected modern society—in both the film and real life, there seems to be a pervading sense of helplessness to secret, malevolent forces and processes we can’t comprehend, that were put in place long before our time. . The film’s ending is bleakly nihilistic, suggesting that grief and trauma don’t always bring a family together—they might destroy it instead.

Hereditary has divided audiences, as happens with almost every critically acclaimed horror movie that has higher ambitions than just schlock (see The Witch, It Comes at Night, and many more). CinemaScore, a site which measures audience responses to movies, has given it a rating of D+. You could argue that critics are responsible for this, overhyping the movie to a dangerous extent; I am obviously a fan, but the number of headlines declaring it to be the “scariest movie ever” is embarrassing. I can only speak for myself, and say that I had one of the most visceral reactions to Hereditary than I have had from any horror movie in years. There is are some moments that betray its nature as a debut feature; a mountain of exposition is somewhat clumsily dumped on the audience at the end, although it is saved by its unnerving delivery. For the most part, however, Hereditary is an amazing achievement for a first-time director, and a harrowing, vivid nightmare.

 

Hereditary is in cinemas now.