Horror is having a moment of sustained critical cachet, with a growing list of scary movies receiving praise for emotional resonance, thematic richness, and/or excellence of execution that transcend the genre’s usual stale jump scares. Hereditary seems keen to get in on the action, offering a sophisticated layer of fraught family drama atop a pulpier horror foundation; its familiar depictions of unraveling psyches and things going bump in the night are shaped by deeper notions of fatalism and inherited trauma. It’s an ambitious debut for Ari Aster, who directs with an incredibly steady hand, and Toni Collette is beyond terrific as Annie, an increasingly manic mom who may or may not be losing her mind. But while there are plenty of great pieces to Hereditary, they don’t quite cohere into a satisfying whole.
One of the issues is Alex Wolff, miscast as Annie’s teenage son, Peter. Wolff is only a few years older than his character, but I would have put him in his mid-twenties, and the gap is wide enough to be conspicuous. For a less consequential character, it might not be such a problem, but Peter’s arc is crucial and would have benefitted from a more unambiguously youthful vulnerability. (On the flip side, Gabriel Byrne is underused as Annie’s innocuous husband.)
The other, more substantial problem is the controversial ending. Even if I didn’t find Hereditary’s mythology to be more silly than scary, I’d be irked by its superfluous final scene, which removes most of the film’s remaining mystery while essentially assuming you haven’t been paying attention for the past two hours. Ironically, that scene is the high point for Colin Stetson’s score, which is an otherwise perfectly effective but strangely generic outing from one of the world’s most interesting living musicians.
All told, Hereditary is an above-average horror movie, but a fairly conventional one. Its most vivid sequences are masterfully assembled, but they’re not especially novel, which keeps the dread at a safer distance than the best of the genre. But it’s worth noting that many people in the audiences at the two screenings I attended would disagree, and their collective gasps throughout the film made the theatrical experience of Hereditary more than worthwhile.