Sundance Review: HEREDITARY Is An Effective (Read: Terrifying) Horror Debut

A24 has another winner on its hands.

It’s difficult to believe Heredity could be anyone’s debut film. Not only does it look great and feature respected actors like Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne, but its scares are so well done, so effective and assured, you’d expect a veteran in charge. But nope, it’s just some young whippersnapper scaring the hell out of you for two hours.

Toni Collette plays Annie, whose secretive and strange mother has just died after a long bout of dementia. She, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) aren’t too shaken by the death but her younger daughter Charlie (Molly Shapiro) seems more affected. As the family gets back into their regular routine (for Charlie, this includes cutting the heads off dead birds), a much more terrible tragedy occurs, and Hereditary begins in earnest. 

Like the best horror films, Hereditary uses supernatural scares to examine something very real, in this case grief, and to a lesser extent, the idea that our families define us whether we like it or not. This is handled with surprising maturity, and before all accolades go to Toni Collette, it would be a shame not to point out Gabriel Byrne’s quiet work here as a patient family man who repeatedly has to put his grief aside to make room for all the insane shit happening to his family.

Having said that, this is totally Toni Collette’s movie. Horror films don’t usually merit award consideration, but Collette’s performance here is next level, and I worry her efforts will go unnoticed. We think of great acting as something that is supposed to look effortless. This performance constantly looks difficult, excruciating even. It’s a role that requires carefully modulated mania and emotion throughout, and Collette holds the entire film on her shoulders. 

Viewers will get a thoughtful story of grief told through great performances, but what they’ll come for is the scares, and Hereditary shines in this department. Writer-director Ari Aster uses shadow and misdirection to great effect, providing many moments to rile audiences, while also offering moments of shocking, blunt violence as well. He's not going for gore, but there are definitely moments that keep this from being a PG-13 affair. I’m being vague on purpose, but the film’s greatest strength is creating an unshakable and always rising sense of dread and lack of safety inside this family’s house. It gets under your skin.

This is just a great horror film, offering a great experience for packed audiences while also giving them plenty to discuss on the way home. The film goes to interesting places and arrives at a conclusion that is as impressive as it is horrific. Keep an eye out for this one. It will undoubtedly be one of 2018’s scariest films.