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Hereditary (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 8, 2020



Starring Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, Milly Shapiro, Mallory Bechtel, Zachary Arthur, Mark Blockovich, Jake Brown, Gabriel Monroe Eckert, John Forker, Gerry Garcia, Austin R. Grant, Rachelle Hardy, Brock Mckinney, Marilyn Miller, Jason Miyagi, Shane Morrisun, A.J. Moss, Heidi Méndez, Jarrod Phillips, Georgia Puckett, BriAnn Rachele, Travis Sanchez and Lorenzo Silva.

Screenplay by Ari Aster.

Directed by Ari Aster.

Distributed by A24. 127 minutes. Rated R.

Hereditary starts with a chyron quotation, but it is not an important line from history or literature. Instead, it is the fictional newspaper death announcement for someone named Ellen Taper Leigh.

Needless to say, Mrs. Leigh does not appear in Hereditary, except in flashbacks, because… well, she’s supposed to be dead. However, her death, and in many ways her life, starts incidents in motion which lead to some horrific twists and turns.

The truth is, Hereditary starts out pretty scary, with some truly shocking moments. The problem is, the more you learn about what is going on, the more ridiculous it gets.

The story begins as Annie (Toni Collette), Mrs. Leigh’s estranged daughter, returns home for the funeral. She gives a rather shocking eulogy, a moody monologue about what a strange woman her mother was. Annie and her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teen son Peter (Alex Wolff) and tween daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) have moved into her mother’s home, despite the fact that Annie has some very bad memories of the place and isn’t sure she wants to be there.

However, it is a beautiful, if slightly spooky house, and it gives Annie a place to do her art – she makes little miniature tableaus which look like extraordinarily detailed dollhouses – to prepare for a major show as an artist which is coming up.

They try to settle in, but there are obviously some serious problems going on. Annie is quiet and distraught. Steve is getting tired of her moodiness. Peter is troubled, and Charlie seems like a really weird, disturbed kid. This is a family ready for an explosion, and it comes soon enough.

One night, Annie insists that Peter take his little sister to a high school party he is going to. On the way back home, there is a horrific auto accident which decapitates his sister. Peter reacts exceedingly oddly. Yes, I guess he was probably in shock, but he goes home, doesn’t tell anyone, and hides in his bed until the next morning, allowing his parents to find his sister’s body.

That was certainly throwing a match into the paint thinner covering their lives. (Yes, there is a reason I chose paint thinner as the flame accelerant in that metaphor – you’ll see if you watch the film.)

Annie, whose sanity was already on a fraying string, retreats even further from her family. She blames Peter for the death, and her odd behavior is driving her and Steve even further apart. At a grief counselling group, she meets a sweet and understanding woman named Joanie (Ann Dowd) who tries to help her come to grips with her loss. Then one day Joanie suggests that Annie try having a séance for her daughter.

Oh yeah, that doesn’t sound like a good idea. So, of course, Annie does it.

In the meantime, Peter, who is drowning in guilt himself, keeps seeing and feeling strange things. Is his sister back? Or is his mother trying to hurt him?

And what does her late mother have to do with all the strange goings on?

The film has a slow-burn buildup, but honestly the two money shocks happen within the first half hour. First time feature director Ari Aster (he has previously done several shorts, including the acclaimed “Munchhausen” and “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons”) sustains a spooky feeling of dread, even when as a screenwriter his film is starting to spin out of control a bit. Aster is obviously a horror fan – there are conspicuous nods to The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and others, though oddly the film it reminded me most of was a very artistically made version of Paranormal Activity 3, which honestly is not a good thing.

However, credit where it is due – Hereditary is really well directed. Aster takes what could be an uncomfortable fit – an arty horror film – and makes it look stunning.

Too bad about that ending, though.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: June 8, 2018.

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