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Hereditary Review: Turning Grief Into Terror

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Give your mother a hug.

A dysfunctional family isn't a particularly original source of horror, and Hereditary doesn't blow the genre open with some revolutionary new take. It's just gripping, white-knuckled, old school horror that never, over more than two hours, lets you get comfortable for long, despite the familiarity of its themes and tropes.

How do you deal with grief? It's different for everyone, and if you've never experienced a major loss, you can't really know how you'll respond. Some people blame themselves; others lash out at loved ones; some people close up and just try to keep it together. The reactions of the Graham family--Toni Collette's Annie, Gabriel Byrne's Steve, Alex Wolff's Peter, and Milly Shapiro's Charlie--run the gamut when Annie's mother (Peter and Charlie's grandmother) dies. The tragedy slowly unravels them, but it's not the only factor, and they're not free from blame themselves.

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Now Playing: Hereditary Review: Gripping, Shocking Horror

Hereditary takes its major cues from classic horror movies like The Shining and Rosemary's Baby. In terms of contemporaries, it has plenty in common with The Babadook. The Grahams' house, full of dark wood paneling and darker hallways, is impeccably designed for maximum claustrophobic horror. A treehouse glimpsed from bedroom windows, lit space heater red, resembles nothing more than a smoldering furnace, summoning thoughts of cremation. Like all great horror, Hereditary is full of tiny details, foreshadowing, and hints that give it a sense of inevitability. It will benefit from multiple viewings.

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That's if you have the constitution. Hereditary isn't a gratuitous slasher or gore fest, but it will test your mettle nevertheless. Its structure is unpredictable for a horror movie; every time you think the build-up will finally give way to all-out terror, the movie instead dips into another tense lull. There's no slow build to a chaotic final act, because it's all build, and it never lets up.

Hereditary can feel slow at times, but it always snaps you back to attention. At one point in my screening, the woman sitting next to me screamed, "Oh, god, no!!" at the top her lungs--and that was in the first act. When it's over, there's no catharsis. You won't gratefully let out a huge breath you didn't know you were holding. You'll still be holding it as you leave the theater.

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The horror doesn't come from jump scares, of which there are very few. It's more the sense of reality coming undone--of forces beyond control manipulating the characters into acts of self-destruction. Hereditary isn't overly concerned with its own metaphors, but it does leave things open to interpretation.

Nuanced performances from the leads sell every moment of it. Wolff turns in a very different performance than in last year's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, while Milly Shapiro hides a lot of complexity behind her distinctive mask of a face. She plays a 13-year-old girl, but you're never quite sure how much she knows--whether she's in on the overarching plot, or simply another victim of it. Ann Dowd supports by doing what she does best--layering meaning and menace under things that sound benign on the surface, much as she does in The Handmaid's Tale. As the bereaved family matriarch, Collette plays out all possible versions of the story at once: Is this all really happening, or is it a grief-induced breakdown? Does she love her family, or hate them, or a little bit of both?

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As the supernatural scares become more prominent, those questions get harder to answer. But it's a gradual shift. Afterward, you won't know quite how to process what you've just seen. But if you love great horror, you'll be dying to see it again.

Hereditary hits theaters June 8.

The GoodThe Bad
Unpredictable pacingCan feel slow toward the beginning
Complex lead performancesRelies on some familiar tropes
Detailed set and visual design
Consistently, shockingly scary
Good balance between plot and metaphor

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Michael Rougeau

Mike Rougeau is GameSpot's Managing Editor of Entertainment, with over 10 years of pop culture journalism experience. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two dogs.

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