Hereditary review: A film that clings to the psyche like a bad dream

Hereditary photo courtesy A24 via
Hereditary photo courtesy A24 via /

Hereditary has plenty of psychological terror to keep you anxious, but is it scary enough to make it worth watching?

In the new horror film Hereditary, a grieving woman grapples with trauma, parenting, and secrets of her recently deceased mother. Most families have dysfunction of some kind, and sometimes when confronting those issues passively, the result can leave every moment feeling heavy.

That’s the essence of Hereditary, that uneasy feeling of a giant elephant in the room. The whole time the audience is waiting on something lingering beneath the family dynamic to explode. Instead of doing so, the dread at the dining table just sticks, and the anxiety just builds. Just like most people stuck in these dysfunctional families, there’s no escape from it.

The film stars Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense)  as Annie, who recently buried her estranged mother. In the story, she is still trying to let go of old feelings about their relationship, and while doing so, she vaguely mentions weird things from her past. As the story unfolds, strange things begin to transpire around the family. Her daughter Charlie sees things, like her dead grandma. Her son Peter (Alex Wolff of Jumanji: Welcome to the Junglestarts feeling a dreadful presence stalking him to the point he can barely function. The father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) gets a call that the recently deceased grandmother’s burial has been desecrated. Topping everything off, Annie starts discovering that her troubled past is weirder than she knew.

Hereditary photo courtesy A24 via photo by Reid Chavis /

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As pointed out earlier in the week, the film is a slow burn experience before it gets crazy.  It’s definitely not adrenaline based terror, unlike A Quiet Place.  Most of this worked for me because it allowed for a lot of rich character development.  The strong character building makes the final moments of Hereditary extremely impactful. 

It’s the type of horror film that aims to unsettle and bother the viewer long after the film, not startle the viewer.  It is equivalent of having a nightmare and then waking up with the dream affecting the rest of your day. It singes inside your thoughts long after the credits hit your eyeballs.

Hereditary also contains some of the best performances in a horror film in years. Toni Collette puts on a performance that could easily be considered as “award-worthy” but I’m not sure the Academy pays attention to horror. Alex Wolff will also be the talk of conversation for weeks to come with his extremely well-executed performance of a son haunted by his family’s rising supernatural nightmare. This guy is a rising star in the making. Also, a huge shout out to Ann Dowd of The Leftovers and The Handmaid’s Tale, who continues to play roles that make her so much fun to hate.

Hereditary photo courtesy A24 via photo by Reid Chavis /

The cinematography is some of the best from the horror genre as well.  Pawel Pogorzelski is relatively unknown but his camera work here adds to the tension as well as the emotions of the character. He’s very good with the lingering panning shots that make the viewer beg to see what’s around the corner while squirming for the tension to end.

Some of the composition reminded me of how Jonathan Demme used to frame scenes that felt uncomfortably personal– for example, a terrible thing happens to a character towards the end of the first act, and the camera never breaks away from their face as the horrific moment slowly washes over them. It’s one of the most realistic disturbing sequences of the entire film.

What makes the film so great is the strong metaphors and themes throughout. Hereditary shines a relatable scope inside the culture of families and how future generations can feel like victims of their parents, and how some never get past it. The need for acceptance by mothers and fathers, and the resentment that can form a growing curse are all too realistic and bring the audience inside the film.

It can also be perceived as a loose metaphor about grief, where not letting go of pain or trauma can destroy the lives around you. Toni Collette demonstrates these notions incredibly with her viciously gripping performance as a mother on the verge of losing grasp with herself and everyone around her.

Next: Hereditary: Explaining that bizarre WTF ending

Overall Thoughts

It’s a tad hyperbolic to call Hereditary the scariest movie in years but it’s one of the best films in the genre in a long time. It contains performances that can easily be placed for awards consideration come winter, especially Toni Collette who elevates the material in every scene she is given.

Do not expect to get the same intensity as A Quiet Place but also do not expect to go home feeling collected either. Hereditary sticks in the brain like black tar, making the viewer reflect on the uncomfortable madness they just endured. Several images and moments from the film are meant to cling like a nightmare that you can’t seem to shake.

Hereditary is in theaters now.