Australian actress Toni Collette is outstanding in the deeply unsettling and frankly terrifying Hereditary, the latest feature on A24’s roster (released through Entertainment Film here in the UK on 15 June) and the latest classic of the horror genre.
Hereditary opens with the funeral of Annie’s (Collette) mother and begins its gruelling descent into dark territory, the matriarch’s death a sharp puncture point in the relatively settled fabric of their family life. Annie is an artist who creates miniature models of scenes from her life, mostly sites of trauma she remembers and often associated with her mother. She is married with two kids, the sullen teenager Peter (Alex Wolff) and the younger, seemingly more troubling, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who is fond of making models of her own. Charlie’s toys however are, on the surface at least, far more sinister than her mother’s.
We witness characters at the mercy of their environments as if controlled by external powers, figurines in one of Annie’s artistic dollhouses. In Hereditary, our senses are so deeply attuned to fear that there is very little respite even when there is nothing to immediately incite it. The film, through its toying with tempo, lighting, and a cruel hesitancy, rewires our perceptions of everything we see. We flit between false senses of security and terror, hovering over whether or not we should really be afraid when we have no idea what may be around the next corner. There is an intriguing mix of scare tactics in order to elicit a multitude of responses – some things are shudder-worthy and make your skin crawl, while others are panic-inducing, leaving your eyes to dart around the darkness to make sense of what might be in front of you.
The performances in the film are impressive. Wolff is excellent as Peter in very demanding scenes, at once exhausting to watch and shockingly alert to leave audiences bruised. Collette shines in what is at its core a deeply emotional role centred around grief and the strength needed to hold a family together. Akin to Shelley Duvall in The Shining, Collette is emotionally fierce. What happens to her over the course of the film only adds to the state of grief, descending into despair. An important element of Hereditary’s horror is the way we feel attached to Annie as our protagonist before hell breaks loose. The film pulls at our trust of everything, from characters to our own eyesight. Anything worth believing in this film is very quickly dismantled.
While it is tempting to find metaphors and allegories that seem to be woven into the film – the stages of grief, the guilt and pressure of motherhood, family anxieties – by the end it is impossible to maintain these. It defies a coherent understanding that could explain away the intensity of the fear and instead fully immerses the viewer into an arena of paranoia. By the end of the film, its very title feels like a twisted joke – who knows what might be in line for you? This is an extreme test of your nerves but a worthwhile watch.