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All great horror contains a rock solid dramatic base, in that if you take out the horror elements you're still left with palpable drama, engaging characters, and gripping conflict. In its bones, Hereditary is bona fide ‘70s style supernatural horror, with all of the bone-chilling mood and unrestricted gruesomeness that comes with that package. Yet if we were to strip off all of the horrific insanity that meticulously and patiently envelop the narrative, putting its characters and the audience through a psychological version of that famous frog boiling experiment, it still would have worked perfectly as a tautly written and acted drama about a family struggling to process their grief after being hit with a series of traumatic tragedies.
The matriarch of the family is Annie (Toni Collette), who just lost her mother at the beginning of the story. She had a contentious relationship with her mother, who always wanted to control the lives of her children. She managed to keep her away from her delicate son Peter (Alex Wolff), but gave in when her daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro) was born. Because of her mother's intervention in Charlie's rearing, she grows up to be an odd and reclusive teenager who's obsessed with death. Just when you think this is going to be yet another "creepy kid" movie, another horrible tragedy strikes the family, putting them through a tailspin of depression and resentment. By the way, this is one of the many genre curveballs Hereditary cleverly throws at us. There are many moments where we become certain as to the horror sub-genre we're witnessing, only for the rug to be refreshingly pulled out from under us.
The first half of Hereditary focuses on the emotional fallout of this series of family trauma, as it builds a strong dramatic blueprint for the hardcore horror elements to freely dance on it without seeming flippant or existing solely for cheap shock value. We care about these characters, so when the blood hits the fan, and there are buckets of it, it leaves us in a downright catatonic state. But before we get there, take a look at the terrific central sequence where Annie and Peter air out their grievances at the dinner table. The sequence is terrifically acted and written, cerebrally uncomfortable, yet doesn't have a hint of supernatural horror. It could have easily existed in a stuffy Oscar-bait drama and garnered all the awards buzz. Perhaps it still should. With that dramatic grounding, writer/director Ari Aster is able to go hog-wild as his third act rams squarely into crazy town, delivering the most succulent and delicious red meat for even the most jaded genre hounds.
Hereditary employs a seldom-used 2:1 aspect ratio. Some viewers might be turned off from the tiny black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, but kudos to A24 for retaining it and not presenting the film in 16:9. The 1080p transfer is clean without any video noise, and is aces when it comes to contrast and black levels. The most disturbing parts of Hereditary come from things you can barely see in the dark, but nevertheless know they're there.
Hereditary is a slow burn in the audio department, using fairly subdued and natural sounds until it's time to let loose the blood-curdling insanity. There's great dynamic range in the DTS-HD 5.1 track and the surround channels really kick in right when they have to.
The True Nature of Hereditary: This 20-minute featurette is a fairly standard EPK that briefly delves into all the basic aspects of production.
Selected Deleted Scenes: 15 minutes of excised material mostly adds more tension. Considering the tension is stretched almost beyond its limits, it was a good idea to get rid of these scenes.
Photo Gallery: This is a quaint gallery that focuses on the miniatures depicted in the film.
We also get a Trailer.
This is Asher's first feature, and he handles it like a seasoned pro. It never falters from its unique vision and pacing, and the languid visual style is always in tune with his narrative of increasing dread. From the first shot on, he communicates something sinister is always under this seemingly par for the course family drama, letting us know that perhaps we're in for a truly tragic tale. The outcome is already written for this family, no matter how hard they work to turn the tide. The performances are terrific, with Collette and Wolff bravely facing the burden of the script's increasing intensity. Hereditary is one of those experiences where the mystery is a lot more gripping than the exposition. Perhaps that's why when everything's revealed, it's the film's weakest point. Everything else, though, signifies that we're in for a modern horror classic.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com