C.S. Lewis opens A Grief Observed with an unnerving declaration: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” By far Lewis’s most personal and unsparing book, it records his (often unsuccessful) attempts to come to grips with the death of his wife Joy Davidman. Though it’s far from hopeless, A Grief Observed continues to distress many readers because of its steadfast refusal to settle for any kind of superficial or premature consolation. Lewis’s ordeal produced no escape clauses, and he doesn’t offer any to the reader either.
Zeroing in on a similar connection between grief and fear, Jason Zinoman—one of the most incisive horror critics working today—recently argued, “A character coping with the death of a loved one is the new car of teenagers heading to a cabin in the woods.” He’s not arguing that this focus is entirely new, of course. The Changeling (1980) and Don’t Look Now (1973) are just two examples of older films that explore the terrifying dimensions of the grieving process to great effect. Instead, Zinoman points to a recent string of horror films, many of which display a rich and emotionally complex preoccupation with grief. The Babadook, The Witch, and It Comes At Night, to name just a few of these recent forays into the land of mourning, all owe their chills more to their exquisite emotional depths than they do to monsters, masked killers, and graphic carnage. As Zinoman has it, this is horror for grownups.
I was worried when I settled into my theater recliner to watch Hereditary, the new horror project from A24 Films. I wasn’t worried about unrealistic expectations—this film’s got the kind of buzz that makes a horror fan like myself cautiously optimistic. I wasn’t worried about being scared—I actually like being scared by a film. I wasn’t even worried about having to take the walk of shame to the restroom—a much more realistic source of anxiety in my case, and the reason for my assiduous avoidance of concession stands. No, I was worried about the belligerent group of twenty-something’s who had plopped down in the seats next to me.
Back in 2015, I managed to catch the release of Robert Eggers’s The Witch, and I learned firsthand that not everyone is willing to trade in a prolific body count for emotional depth. Consequently, I was worried that the three amateur critics stuffing copious amounts of popcorn into their mouths and sucking vigorously on their straws were going to continue voicing their discontent when Hereditary failed to offer the kind of soothing titillation that caters to the jaded gallows impulse.
Then the movie started and something remarkable happened: the entire theater shut up and didn’t make another sound until the credits rolled. And Hereditary is a slow burn, with the central conflict erupting nearly thirty minutes into the film. Nowadays, this kind of pace is a considerable formal risk, especially for a horror film, which people usually expect to make a big splash in its opening moments. But director and writer Ari Aster continually displays a confidence that’s utterly out of keeping with his meager resume. With just one film under his belt, it doesn’t seem presumptuous to label this new director an auteur.
Hereditary begins with the funeral of the Graham family matriarch, a woman whose secretive nature was matched only by her frigid demeanor. If all of the remaining family members are somewhat callous about this difficult woman’s passing, they are soon reeling from another loss—one that proves to be their undoing. Though the intimate source of these catastrophic events is best discovered firsthand, it’s worth noting that Hereditary puts a new spin on the “sins of the fathers” motif.
Aster recently told Mick Garris that his plan for Hereditary was nothing short of comprehensive. With script and storyboards in hand, Aster followed in the footsteps of heroes like Hitchcock and Polanski in blocking his actors’ every movement. The end result is a film that manifests a very tight sense of control; we get the distinct impression that Aster knew exactly what he wanted in each shot. Fear not: This degree of precision doesn’t impose the kind of clinical detachment that’s sometimes associated with, say, a Kubrick. An atmosphere of clinical detachment generally precludes the viewer’s emotional investment, and this movie is certainly one of the most emotionally devastating pieces of work I’ve seen in years.Guilt is grief’s demonic cousin, and it often makes an unwelcome entrance in the midst of tragedy.
Hereditary is an immaculate nightmare, with a grieving family at its center. This family lives in a house that’s bordered by thick woods—a clear picture of untamed wildness and unseen forces encroaching on fragile domestication. An elaborate tree house sits adjacent to the family home. We soon learn that this secluded place is the young daughter’s private haven. Undeterred by the frigid Utah nights, Charlie sleeps in this surrogate home, much to her mother’s dismay. Played with haunting abandon by newcomer Milly Shapiro, Charlie’s bizarre behavior is the first indication that something is very wrong with the Graham family. Her distant eyes seem to betray the fact that she inhabits a very different world from the one that you and I know.
Charlie’s tree house is not the film’s only miniature home. Her mother, Annie, is an artist who makes intricate dioramas that appear to shrink the material circumstances of their family’s life down to manageable sizes. This notion is reinforced with a clever zoom shot that merges a model of the family home with its real-life counterpart. Throughout the film, Annie hovers over her tiny worlds like a capricious god. Outside her studio, these little houses decorate the family’s living spaces, their tiny lights shining through their tiny windows.
For all its finesse, Aster’s film is punctuated by occasional bursts of shocking violence, and my dismay was audible at times. But what charges these images with such great force is their humane nature; Aster never lets audiences forget that a destroyed body once belonged to a person. He also refuses to move on quickly from a death, depicting its excruciating aftermath with near-forensic levels of detail. One scene in particular gives new meaning to the phrase “wild with grief.” The primal, on-all-fours-animalistic response from a grieving mother brings the film close to the harrowing torment of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers—a movie unmatched in its visceral evocation of physical pain and existential dread, and one of the most frightening viewing experiences of my life.
Like many of the more perceptive directors, Aster knows that the human face is a revelation that leaves the special effects industry in the dust. This is why the most terrifying image in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is the look of unremitting horror on Mia Farrow’s face after she peers into the black crib of her satanic spawn. Nobody complains about not seeing the baby because you don’t need to see the baby.
Aster lets the faces of his actors speak and the results are as unnerving as they are spellbinding. Tony Collette’s harrowed features in particular demonstrate a remarkable range as she’s led through a maze of pain and madness. Whether twisted into the ugly contours of abject sorrow or frozen in a grimace of resentful contempt, much of this film’s horror is carried in its protagonist’s agile visage. Throughout most of the movie, her face is a transcript of pain.
As many critics have pointed out, the emotional terrorism on display in Hereditary frequently exceeds the bloodshed. Since the film is interested in the actual sources of tragedy, its characters are plagued by the manifold ways in which they are implicated in the calamity that befalls them. Hereditary proffers the family as the apex of horror—the seat of deeply ingrained evil, mental illness, and ensuing trauma. By situating the disaster in the family unit, Hereditary is interested in what theologians call “the mystery iniquity.” A masked killer is one thing; something in your bloodline is quite another story. To say that this film does for Ancestry.com what Jaws did for the ocean sounds a bit crude, but some viewers might be a bit more circumspect about their heritage. At the very least, they may scrutinize dusty photo albums with more wariness than nostalgia.
Guilt is grief’s demonic cousin, and it often makes an unwelcome entrance in the midst of tragedy. All of the characters in this movie are plagued with guilt, and it slowly corrodes their peace, turning a dinner table into a battlefield, and the family home into a warzone. In one scene, Annie unleashes words of such shocking cruelty on her son that she quickly fastens her hands over her mouth, as though something physical has just escaped her body.
The film’s final act lands with the force of a hammer-blow. When Annie smashes her dioramas in a moment of hysterical rage, most of us know that this is a microcosm of the film’s chaotic denouement. Though there are satanic rituals and occult conspiracies, I think Hereditary will be remembered as a gothic meditation on grief, a shocking confirmation of Christ’s response at the tomb of Lazarus—namely, that loss and tragedy aren’t just sad and unfortunate; they are horrors that demand wails and screams as much as tears.
 Hereditary director Ari Aster has name-dropped Don’t Look Now as an influence.
 Despite its kinetic camera work, labyrinthine interiors, and familial violence, The Shining this is not. Key distinction: You care about the Grahams. Morbid curiosity keeps you watching the Torrances.
 The Witch mines similarly mythic territory when its exiled pilgrims build their home on the edge of New England woods.
 With her red, hooded sweater and otherworldly features, Charlie bears a striking resemblance to the elusive figure that leads Donald Southerland on a wild goose chase through the streets and canals of Rome in Don’t Look Now.
 Horror aficionados will be delighted by the numerous nods to former masterpieces. With regard to Aster’s face fixation: there’s more than a little Carrie in Collette’s petrified face. Also, this film offers the most nightmarish depiction of ants chowing down on decaying matter since Lynch’s Blue Velvet.