New Horror Canon: In honor of the month of October, film critic Joseph Ornelas looks at the most significant and influential horror films of the past 10 years.
Like all truly great horror films, Ari Aster’s 2018 directorial debut “Hereditary” uses the framework of the genre to explore the often uncomfortable fears and anxieties of real life. “Hereditary” ambitiously tackles grief, trauma and mental illness and how they can be inherited from generations past.
Annie, played by Toni Collette, has recently lost her mother, with whom she had a strained and complicated relationship. Before the body turns cold, there ensues a series of increasingly disturbing incidents and revelations which drive her and her family into inconsolable grief and manic states of despair. At its core, “Hereditary” is a family drama about how grief can exacerbate the divisions which already exist in a family. At one point in the film, at a particularly poignant dinner table scene, Annie laments that their most recent family tragedy has proven to be “such a waste,” as it has not brought them closer together, but driven them further apart. Annie no longer sleeps in the same bed as her loving and supportive husband, who is essentially keeping what’s left of their family together by cooking dinner, taking care of the family’s day-to-day needs and being the sole source of emotional support.
Meanwhile, the couple’s two children, Peter and Charlie, handle their situation in equally isolating ways. Peter, an already generally disinterested teenager, spends less and less time in the company of his family. Annie and Peter, despite having the most tumultuous relationship of any of the characters on screen, share the common practice of coping with their grief by retreating into themselves. Peter tries his best to be as absent as possible, both mentally and physically, by hanging out with his clueless stoner friends, vying for the affection of a girl in his class and never approaching any member of his family to check in on their emotional wellbeing.
Charlie is a clearly troubled, socially anxious 13-year-old girl who refuses to engage in even the most basic interactions. As the story progresses, Charlie seems to be the main target of the unseen evil agent which has manifested in the family since the death of her grandmother. Charlie had a particularly close relationship with her grandmother, whose dark and mysterious past reveals itself over the duration of the film. As the family’s already corroding foundation further breaks down, it is clear that Annie’s mother has left them with more than the ghosts of her many abuses.
“Hereditary” is more than satisfying for those who are partial to occult-oriented horror films; however, it also crosses over as simply being a great examination of family dynamics. The entire cast gives stellar performances, particularly Collette, who gives a career highlight performance with equal parts derangement and vulnerability. Alex Wolff as Peter also showcases immense talent, especially in those scenes in which he is opposite Toni Collette. The screenplay is arguably one of the best written for any horror movie. Each character is completely fleshed out and fully realized, a quality missing from some blockbuster films in the genre. Finally, the sound design is uniquely disturbing and unsettling, as is the minimal ambient score which slowly and effectively builds anxiety.
“Hereditary” is essential viewing for every type of film fan, especially those who enjoy their character dramas with a heavy dose of unrelenting and deeply disturbing imagery, which will permeate in ways you may not quite be ready for.