02 July 2018

What was that?

A review of "Hereditary," the new horror film released by A24

When A24 puts a horror movie on their mega-hype train, we nerdy movie buffs go headlong into it, while the more tradition horror fans show up on opening weekend and start in on their " What was that? It sucked!"

Or maybe they're just the ones who believe quotes like "it's this generation's 'Exorcist'" or "this film that will be talked about for decades"?

I finally got to the new A24 horror release, "Hereditary," knowing as little as possible. I had to literally fight myself off of most reviews. I went in excited. I'm into the critically-acclaimed and always have been. When I left, I wish I hadn't even watched a trailer. Way too much in the trailer. Alas, A24's marketing style made them virtually unavoidable.

But it's a really great scary movie, an even better bleak family drama, gut-wrenchingly, horrifyingly so, and it achieves this, above all, with not only shocking visuals but sound. Only the best ones really go to work with the latter.

Consider a moment late in the film where the Graham family's teenaged pothead son Peter, played by Alex Wolff, is way down the tragic pit of doom into which writer/director Ari Aster's film has thrown him. He awakens from a hellish nightmare alone. He goes to investigate a noise in the dark. We await a jump scare. It comes, not with a usual musical cue but with a terrifying visual we aren't sure we even just saw.

But the real fear isn't in that visual either. It's not even in the classic Hitchcockian anticipation of it. It is this sound of whispering, a humming of some kind so faint I literally whispered to my sister, "What was that?", taking my eyes off the screen to discern whether this was some other patron talking to a friend or some horror emanating from the speakers surrounding the auditorium. When I finally landed on the latter, I knew I was watching a special film.

Toni Collette stars as Annie Graham, a woman who has known some tragedy in her life, has some demons. We first see her speaking at her mother's funeral service, awkwardly acknowledging a number of mourners she's never seen before. Her mother was indeed a mystery, strange it seems, guarded, manipulative. She passed in home hospice care under Annie's roof.

After the funeral, Annie tells her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), that she feels like she should be more sad. Sometimes the loss of a loved one is like that.

Her 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is an odd kid. Shapiro herself is an actress born to be a kid in a horror movie. She has the sort of facial features (amped up with makeup here) that induce the sort of curiosity a film like this demands. She loved her late grandmother. We learn they shared some special bond. Charlie makes miniature human-like figures out of found objects, including the head of a dead bird. She does this little tongue-click noise that resurfaces at random.

Tragedy befalls the Graham family again, an "unspeakable" one...as so many other reviewers have called it. Annie's mind begins to unravel along with each member of the family. Nightmares, both waking and sleeping. Fights full of bottled guilt. Her work, making detailed miniature models mainly of her own life, is going down the drain. She is late on her submission to the art gallery. She looks to group therapy and finds a support there in Joan (Ann Dowd).

But the demons haunting the Grahams are mostly within, inherited, and we are left with the downward spiral of a family. Mix in the late mother's involvement with the occult, and horror ensues.

Director Ari Aster seems mostly interested in exploring how we deal with our pasts in the wake of tragedy, gazing within ourselves. He find horror in genuine human thoughts, and how we often do not dare communicate how we really feel to those we should love the most. There is a dinner table argument and a later scene where Annie checks on her sleeping son that reach levels of domestic pain I've never seen in a movie. Do we cry? Or do we recoil? Credit to Collette for her work in this film. She is worthy of awards for these two scenes alone.

Aster does begin to answer questions from the first couple acts in the end, and he does it in shocking ways. But, above all, he clearly understands that what the mind's eye sees under a shroud of dread and memory is more terrifying than some tangible monster hiding behind the door. As viewers, when we are finally shown the light so to speak, we're never really sure if what we're seeing is actually there or not. THAT is scary in and of itself. That is an achievement.

Like most horror movies, "Hereditary" ends with a shocker that leaves us as viewers also questioning what we saw before, and, if it works for you as it did for me, you'll likely immediately want to see it again...until a couple days later when you're sitting in a dark room at night and can't shake what you saw in the last 15 minutes of this film and you start to doubt if you can handle it again.

The horror Aster pulls off for the first 100 minutes of the film are a series of gut punches sure to affect any member of any family. The horror he pulls off at the end will likely never leave my brain. I know it was sound. I know it was image. But what was that?

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Screened at Regal Downtown West in Knoxville, TN, on June 27th, 2018


  1. So glad you enjoyed this! And that you made time for it with the new baby and all!

    GOD the things this movie does with images and sound. In my screening, somewhere around the scene with Peter that you mention, this girl in the front of the theater kept repeating "OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD" for a solid minute. There's also a moment close to the beginning that's like that, too, where you aren't really sure if you're seeing what you're seeing because the image is so dark, but as the shot holds, it becomes PAINFULLY clear that yes, that is what you're seeing - it is MOST DEFINITELY there. It's terrifying in such a different way from most horror films. I loved it. Even if I did find the very end a bit... silly, in comparison to the rest of it (it fits with the plot, but when you actually speak out that plot point and think of the tone of the whole movie, it sounds extra ridiculous). But the craft is on point (so many scenes actually look like miniatures, which gives everything an extra creepy feeling), and the performances are incredible.

    So glad to see you back, man!

    1. Glad to be back! My sister came into town from Denver to help us out with the baby and whatnot and she and I got a chance to get out one afternoon to see this.

      I think in atmosphere alone this movie is worth all the high praise I and others have given it. This movie could've been devastating and PERFECT if that cut to black and brilliant closing soundtrack had come maybe a minute earlier. I suppose Aster needed to tie it up. I definitely dug the psychological family drama aspects more than the occult stuff. The miniature model motif is fucking rich, man. I love those sorts of visual metaphors.

  2. Glad you enjoyed this!

    This may be attributed to the fact that I haven't seen many horror films, but this is the scariest film I've ever seen. I have never screamed that loud & that often in a theater (as many in the audience did as well). Everything about this film is perfect. It's a fantastic horror film, one that finally manages to be different than most horror films nowadays, which mainly rely on poorly-timed jumpscares.

    Also, A24 released the film, so I knew there was a 95% chance I'd love it.

  3. Love this review, I couldn't word it better myself. This was terrifying for all the right reasons. I shy away from Horror movies because I can't stand needless jump scares, but I really hope more movies in the genre steer this way.

  4. Well I already watch this horror movie. The story of the movie was fantastic and really enjoy the tale. But I think The story of the film is not much horror than the Nun. I Watch The Nun 2018 Online video trailer on YouTube. Videos are really heart breaking and scary.

  5. Such useful information! Thank you! My colleague advised using horror stories for the same type of content.