The Scariest Movie Ever Made
How Hereditary Earned the Title
Hereditary is a divisive film. Released in 2018 to critical acclaim by studio A24, the feature length directorial debut of Ari Aster signaled a new era of horror, a departure from the tried and true method of sequels and slashers to a horror of substance, making subtle statements about humanity through the lens of art. It’s a movie you either love, or you hate, and that is a testament to its unflinching vision. This movie doesn’t care what you think about it, it just wants to freak you the fuck out.
Basically, a modern reworking of Rosemary’s Baby, Aster takes the simple theme of a family struggling with grief, and turns it into a brilliant metaphor of mental illness, highlighting the silent ways families tear themselves apart when having to deal with the complexities of human struggle. It’s astounding the level of forethought and detail on display in this directorial debut. Hereditary is a movie of bold sophistication, an unquestionable masterpiece of horror cinema, and I am going to do my best to explain why you should love it.
The Illusion of Control
People like to believe they are in control of their own lives. The choices they make are theirs. The future is what they make it. However, Hereditary offers a more sinister hypothesis. Throughout the movie there is a blatant motif of miniatures and models, as the character of Annie, played by Toni Collette to unsettling perfection, is an artist who builds miniature recreations of her life. The first scene of the film is an awe-inspiring transition from a miniature model of their home, to the actual house, without any visible cuts. The signal that we have moved from the model to the actual is when a light clicks on in the hallway. This automatically tells the audience, things are not as they seem.
As the story unfolds, we see Annie working on more of these models. It becomes her method of dealing with her grief. By building these tiny memories of painful events from her recent life, she is trying to control the emotional impact, trying not to speak it out loud. Her husband, played by Gabriel Byrne, is noticeably disturbed by this. But he also chooses not to push the issue, not to talk about what he is seeing. This creates a dramatic tension, a brewing dread, as all of these buried emotions start to work their way toward the surface, and events get increasingly bizarre.
The motif of the models is a wonderful and multi-faceted metaphor inside the structure of the story narrative. It becomes a symbol of not only the illusion of being in control of our own lives and our own grief, but also a symbol of the ways our lives can be manipulated by unseen forces, as it is gradually revealed that everything happening to the family from the onset to the horrific conclusion was pre-planned and orchestrated by a sadistic cult. This metaphor has heavy implications on the reality of human life, making a disturbing statement about free will, and the hereditary genes we all carry with us that influence the outcome of who we are.
The Aesthetics of Grief
Hereditary begins with a family already in the throes of grief, as we quickly learn that Annie has just lost her mother. This death will come to haunt the entirety of the film, the same as it haunts the character of Annie. One of the first hints of this is right after the funeral, when Annie enters a dark room, and sees the visage of her mother standing in the shadows, only to disappear when a light turns on. This moment is extremely creepy and unsettling, presented without the usual horror film flare of music or quick cuts to indicate the viewer should be afraid. It just happens, in an abrupt, matter-of-fact manner, making us wonder if it was even real, much like the character who experienced it.
The levels of grief rapidly get worse, along with the compartmentalization necessary to survive it. No family would ever wish to endure the tragedy of losing their youngest child. And yet, the way it is handled in the film is a very realistic approach. The characters don’t really acknowledge it. Instead, they bottle it up, ignore it, try to cope with it in other ways. Peter smokes pot. Annie builds her models. Steve buries himself in his work. The tension between the family builds in a steady dynamic, culminating in a scene at the dinner table where Annie finally explodes in anger. The statement here is that to ignore pain only makes it worse.
As the effects of ignoring grief manifest in the film, so do the levels of horror. It works on a dual to triple level metaphor, especially in regard to the relationship between Annie and Steve. While Annie seeks out weirder ways to cope with her grief, she starts to connect with the paranormal aspects of the story, but because of her history, Steve believes that she is losing her mind. It becomes a question of trust, and the ability to openly discuss what you are feeling with your partner. The more she tries to share with Steve, the more he pushes her away, and the more things fall apart as the horror of the reality is revealed. Steve literally discovers a corpse in their house, and still cannot come to terms with what is actually taking place. To me, this states so much about how the mentally ill often are just desperate for people to listen to them, to hear what they are saying, to believe their stories. It’s such a profound observation.
Rewriting the Dynamics of Horror
Imagine walking into a room hearing a strange sound. It’s something like a back and forth abrasion noise, perhaps just two sticks rubbed furiously together. But when you look up, it’s your mother, sawing her own head off with a handheld wire saw. This is one of the most disturbing scenes in film history, and like every terrifying moment in Hereditary, it just sneaks up on you, it just happens and you have to process it or else lose your sanity.
The horror of Hereditary is one that lacks the customary manipulation audiences have come to expect from a genre where such tactics are so commonplace they border on self-parody. Much like the way the characters in the film are forced to deal with events that push their ability to adapt to the limits of human perseverance, the audience viewing this film is thrust into a narrative that will test their own limits of what they are willing to accept. The events are shown to the audience much the way they would happen to people in reality. No sudden jolts of loud music, no heavy handed quick cuts in the editing room….they just happen. From brief brushes with the odd, to a steadily increasing foray into the realms of madness, the mounting dread in Hereditary builds and builds to a disquieting climax of sheer terror, based solely on the substance of the content, not on any cinematic tricks from its director.
The final act of Hereditary, much like the final act of Rosemary’s Baby, plays on a deeply ingrained revulsion of society to demonology. It’s shocking to see such things portrayed as real, factual events, to see the paranormal come to life as if its existence cannot be argued any longer, that these things are happening all the time just out of view of our ordinary lives. It’s shocking, and deeply, deeply unnerving, to the point that many viewers simply refuse to process it, and instead opt to call the film stupid or silly. But what has happened is Ari Aster took the elements of his craft to the breaking point, a steady layering of sight, sound, and story, driving toward a cliff’s edge that he asks you gleefully to leap from. This is horror cinema at its absolute best.
Love it or Hate It
Whether you love or hate Hereditary, there is no question that you will remember it. Images and moments in this film are so expertly crafted, they linger in the memory for days to weeks. When I first saw it, I had trouble sleeping for a month afterwards. From the traumatic and visceral image of a severed head covered in flies, to that of a possessed mother clinging to the ceiling, this movie simply gets under your skin…and stays there.
For these reasons and more, this movie has become my favorite horror film, coming from a long established love affair with the genre. I believe it will be many years before anyone ever makes a movie that comes close. Aster’s expert command of his craft has resulted in a film that haunts its audience on a subconscious level, from its finely tuned visual details that premeditate the finale, to its use of imagery and sound with repetitive degrees of deepening unease, there’s never been a horror masterpiece quite like this. Of course, you are free to disagree.