I went into this movie knowing as little as possible, based on recommendations from early reviewers. I do not regret that decision and suggest you do the same. So, if you haven't seen it yet, perhaps come back until you have. A large part of the tension becomes framed because of a huge moment that happens early on in the film. If you want to keep reading - consider this a spoiler warning.
There's a lot of hype to this movie. "The most horrifying movie in years in all of 2018." I would have to disagree. I did not find this movie horrifying. However, director Ari Aster's Hereditary is certainly unsettling. It reads much like a drama or thriller rather than a horror film, and at its heart is the after math of a family that won't stop imploding in on itself.
We meet the Graham family after the death of the grandmother, a woman that was not only estranged, but who was said to be psychological abusive to those around her. That is, except for the granddaughter, Charlie (played by Milly Shapiro). While the mother is still reeling over whether or not she should feel "sad" about her mother's death, tragedy strikes the family again. This time the death is messy, unpredictable, and is one of first moments of true horror for the audience.
The buildup to this moment is slow, and there are other scenes that seem to move at a snail's pace. A general lack of tension in this case means that the release is not as effective as it could have been and this is the film's biggest shortcoming. It could have been so much more terrifying than it was.
The visuals and family dynamics are really what save this film for me. To start, there are many stylistic choices that do create serious discomfort for the viewer. A shot of a decapitated head, for example, caused a few audience members to rush out of the theater. There are also moments that are so unnerving that they can't help but stick with you. One can also expect to find a great deal of foreshadowing hitting the audience to what is to come.
It is the way that the family interacts with each other that deserves some lauding. Main character Annie (playing by Toni Collette) for example, spends much of the film trying hard to hold on to the threads of her family while it unravels, piece by piece. It is an inevitable unraveling and that is one of the things that does work for Hereditary. We know that this family is doomed. It's almost palatable, but it's still suspenseful wondering just how far their downward spiral will be.
At the heart of the piece is also Annie's own madness. The realistic dollhouses she builds in her down-the-stairs workshop very much model her own claustrophobic, stifling mind. How much of this is fantasy, how much is reality, and how much is this a fly-on-the-wall look into a woman losing her mind?
The film draws a great deal from works like Rosemary's Baby and The Shining. While it does not come close to replacing previous masterpieces, it certainly gives us an interesting take on the occult narrative. It's certainly worth viewing.
You just have to remember to keep an open mind.