The fact that “Hereditary” blends family drama with horror elements isn’t original, but there’s something about the balance or the vibe that makes it feel that way. For a good chunk of its two hours, writer-director Ari Aster’s breakthrough film – now available on streaming and home video – is a dark exploration of a dysfunctional family. But there are clues here and there that make a viewer feel on edge, and by the end “Hereditary” is not only a horror film, but a haunting one.
A big part of what makes the tone unique is that mother Annie (Toni Collette), father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and teen son Peter (Alex Wolff) don’t behave like they’re in a horror film. Granted, young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, who looks like Drew Barrymore with a rougher upbringing) has a horror-film vibe, because she’s a quiet kid who makes creepy drawings and likes to be alone in her treehouse.
“Hereditary” begins with the funeral of Annie’s mother, whom Annie hated but also loved, as we learn from her grief counseling group visits. It later features a shocking tragedy on par with “Manchester by the Sea,” then wallows in it, allowing a viewer no escape. But even at that point, it doesn’t feel like traditional horror.
When Annie is invited to a séance by a friend from the grief group, Joan (Ann Dowd) – who aims to summon her deceased grandson – Annie’s reaction is strikingly real-world. She is skeptical and embarrassed to be there, then flustered when the ritual appears to work. When Annie tries to repeat the process at home with Steve and Peter, they are completely taken aback. There’s no switch-over moment where the characters realize they are in a film about the supernatural and should therefore just go with it.
Adding to the illusion that this is a “normal” movie are scenes of Peter bored in class, awkwardly flirting with a girl at a party, and smoking weed with his friends under the bleachers. Aster keeps us off balance with Annie’s job and Charlie’s hobby, though. Annie is an artist preparing for a gallery installation of house, office and workplace models. The quiet Charlie is also an artist, and the fact that she thinks bird’s heads are excellent found-object pieces for her collages makes a viewer suspicious.
“Hereditary” opens with a shot that goes inside Annie’s model of the family’s home only to become the actual house, with Steve entering Peter’s room and telling him to get ready for the funeral. That got me wondering if all the events are in someone’s head, or at a different point in time, or something like that.
It’s never crystal clear what’s happening in “Hereditary,” even by the time the credits roll. However, this isn’t a case where Aster throws too much at the screen and fails to connect the dots. The film is peppered with a mix of clues that characters discover, as well as more subtle ones that are a notch above Easter eggs for the audience. One that I was proud to spot is a name on a welcome mat.
I feel confident that when I Google “What happened in ‘Hereditary,’ ” I’ll find that all the answers are in the movie; it’s just that they aren’t spelled out in a final “Here’s what happened” sequence. Once I do that, I think I might appreciate this gripping, chilling movie even more.