There’s something so harrowing and specific about the horror that director Ari Aster managed to pull off in his feature film directorial debut Hereditary. After premiering at Sundance in the winter of 2018, it was released in the U.S. to immediate critical acclaim, even reaching a high-eighty percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, a notoriously hard platform for horror films to receive generous treatment.
For all of its tragedy, disturbingly long sequences of grief, and insistence on twisting the knife ever further into the wounds it creates, Hereditary is a remarkably empathetic film. It is interested in presenting the stakes of the closeness of family ties, the precarious network of factors keeping our loved ones alive, and the sorrow that forms the connective tissue of all horror films but is not always as fleshed out as it is here.
If you loved Hereditary, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news: there is nothing quite like this film. By the very nature of its being so unique and striking, there will always be a gap when trying to recreate the viewing experience. The good news is that when you start glancing down the horror aisle looking for something similar, you’re bound to stumble across gems that will spark their own networks of related films. It’s a bit like mapping out a chaotic family tree, like walking forward and backward to your inheritance.
The Lodge (2019)
For fans of Hereditary, The Lodge is a must-see. There are so many unnerving parallels, including small, bizarre things like the integration of miniature buildings and people that appear at key times to relay plot information and tonal shifts, and larger similarities like the instability of domestic roles, familial trauma and grief, and an insidious blurring of reality.
Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, The Lodge starts off with a rapid, emotionally overwhelming context. Laura Hall (Alicia Silverstone) commits suicide when she finds out that her ex-husband (Richard Armitage) is planning to marry a woman he met while researching a Christian cult that committed mass suicide. His new fiance (Riley Keough) was raised in the cult and is the only survivor of its demise. Shortly after his ex-wife’s death, he thinks his children should get to know their future stepmom better and plans a trip for all of them to go to their remote winter cabin. If all of them had gone at the same time, it might have been fine. But since the dad needs to stay back for work, the two kids end up alone with the woman. The uncomfortable growing pains of a step family are taken to the extreme with the children seeking to get revenge on the woman who is seamlessly replacing their mother.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Unsurprisingly, the classic ‘68 horror film, Rosemary’s Baby served as cited inspiration for Aster’s creation of Hereditary. There is an unmistakable tonal resonance between the two films that seem to speak to one another across the decades. Written and directed by Roman Polanksi, Rosemary’s Baby follows Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes), a young couple who have recently moved into a new apartment and have plans to start a family. When they get there, they are taken in by kind, if overly nosy neighbors who Rosemary starts to suspect may not have the best of intentions when it comes to her unborn child. The film deals with similar themes as Hereditary, including questions of paranoia, occultism, and the splintering of family structures. Fans of both will also notice a particular resemblance between both film’s strangely decisive resolutions.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
This contemporary take on an ancient Greek tragedy, written and directed by Greek filmmakers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, is so comprehensively haunting that it is difficult to fully recommend it.
When a cardiac surgeon introduces his family to the mysterious teenage boy that he has secretly befriended due to his connection to the doctor’s past, no one can pin down who the boy is or what forms the basis of their intense relationship. He introduces the boy to his family, and they all fall ill. By the time the stunning simplicity of the myth emerges, viewers will have slowly and systematically had their perceptions on violence shifted and distorted, producing an out-of-body-experience that will be familiar to anyone who had to pause Hereditary after that scene.
It Follows (2014)
Another sleek, contemporary horror film interested in creating a narrative of estrangement and sacrifice, It Follows premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 before expanding to a wider U.S. release in 2015. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, It Follows is a very artsy dramatization of one of the slasher genre’s most familiar tropes: that any character shown having sex is immediately punished with death.
The film stars Maika Monroe and features performances by Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi and Lili Sepe, a small ensemble cast consisting of primarily young adults who must unravel the sex curse that is plaguing them if they want to save themselves and each other.
Another foundational horror classic that can be seen in the DNA of Hereditary, Carrie (1976) deserves a rewatch. (And a rewatch after that.) Adapted by director Brian De Palma from Stephen King’s 1974 novel of the same name, Carrie is another terrifying glance at adolescence, family control, and embodied relationships with the supernatural.
To say that high school student Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) struggles to fit in with the other girls is an understatement. As she comes to understand her body and the incessant blood thirst of the bullies and her mother’s dominating presence, she reaches for a telekinetic freedom that comes with a hefty cost. Truthfully, it’s hard for any supernatural horror film in the twenty-first century not to owe a debt to Carrie, but the resemblance is certainly striking in Aster’s work.
The Wailing (2016)
Directed by Na Hong-jin and starring Kwak Do-won, Hwang Jung-min, and Chun Woo-Hee, The Wailing is another excellent, eerie exploration of the paranormal outcast. The film is set in Gokseong, a small, mountainous village in South Korea, where the arrival of a Japanese stranger coincides with a bizarre outbreak of an infection that causes those who contract it to become violent and attack their families. While the film is interested in this presence on the village at large, the focus is on one police officer (Do-won) who attempts to piece together the mystery linking the sequence of crimes in order to protect his daughter (Woo-Hee). The film raises thematic questions that fans will recognize from Hereditary, while also incorporating a similar style and saturation.
The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook is an immersive, critically-acclaimed art-house horror that deserves mention on any list revolving around ghouls, familial power structures, and the eerie ways that grief embodies itself in parents. The film was written and directed by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent and stars Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, and Ben Winspear. Though it marks Kent’s debut for a feature film, it was inspired by and adapted from her previous short film, Monster (2005).
The film follows Amelia Vakan (Davis), an exhausted widow who is juggling the demands of professional life, single parenthood, and grieving her lost husband all in relative solitude. Her son (Wiseman) finds an unfamiliar book with a spooky character: a tall, spindly monster in a top-hat called the Babadook. After hearing the story, the boy becomes obsessed with the reality of the monster and begins displaying increasingly concerning behaviors, pushing his already sleep-deprived and struggling mother into further and further depths of confusion.
The Other (1972)
If you liked Hereditary for the spooky sibling dynamics, look no further than the ‘72 film, The Other. This is the kind of movie that you will probably have to watch more than once to fully comprehend, especially because it’s unique enough that some of the plotlines it advances can get a little slippery. Directed by Robert Mulligan—whose other notable credits include To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963)—The Other is about a pair of identical twins (Chris and Martin Udvarnoky) who live on a farm with their mother. During the film’s events, the whole family is still grieving the recent loss of the boys’ father, who died in an accident in the apple cellar. The drama centers around this space, a building which is off-limits to the kids since their dad died there, but serves as a kind of cursed playground where their anti-coming-of-age-story takes place.
Similarly to Hereditary, once you watch this film there will be a lingering adolescent dread that never completely ceases. The disturbing performances of the children are heightened when you learn that neither of the twins ever acted in another movie after this one.
No list of horror films that interrogate dysfunctional family dynamics would be completed without Frailty. The film is directed by, and stars, Bill Paxton, as a man who is convinced he is being channeled by God to murder demons that are masquerading as human people on Earth. The angel that speaks to him keeps him busy with directed serial killings, but the man is also a father to two young boys. As he raises his children and keeps up with what he considers to be the burden of his faith, the man finds himself pushed to the nexus of ideology, discipline, and humanity.
The Machinist (2004)
Sometimes it’s hard to pin down why, exactly, you love a film. If there’s something ethereal about the tone and texture of Hereditary that, while defying articulation, makes you crave more of this same atmosphere, maybe turn back to the early 2000s and give The Machinist another watch. Directed by Brad Anderson, the film follows Christian Bale as a man who works as a machinist and has been inexplicably unable to sleep for an entire year. As he goes through the motions of his life, he comes into closer and closer contact with the dangerous edges of the machines he works with while slowly losing that thread of awakeness that differentiates him from the metal.
Creep is a very special film. After premiering at South by Southwest in 2014, it became available on Netflix for streaming in the summer of ‘15. The production—from story design to cast to execution—is slim. Like, really slim. The film is based on a story by Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass, was directed by Brice, and stars only the two of them. Knowing the collaborative nature of the film helps explain why both actors seem so believably in their elements, but it doesn’t diminish the spookiness that comes from watching Duplass so believably embody such an unhinged character.
Presented in a found-footage style, the film follows a videographer (Brice) who, needing work, agrees to travel to a remote cabin to complete a filming project for his client (Duplass). At first, the assignment is straight forward if strange and macabre. Duplass tells him that he has a brain tumor and will most likely die before his wife gives birth to their child, so he wants to make a video diary to leave behind. As the day progresses, Duplass displays increasingly strange behavior and Brice’s chances of ever leaving the cabin appear to dwindle. Claustrophobic and deeply unsettling, Creep (and it’s sequel Creep II) will be sure to appease fans of Hereditary.
The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
Speaking of found footage, The Taking of Deborah Logan is a diamond in the rough when it comes to innovative, emotionally resonant takes on the subgenre. The film follows three students (Michelle Ang, Brett Gentile, and Jeremy DeCarlos) who set out to create a documentary about Deborah Logan (Jill Larson), an elderly woman living with Alzheimer’s disease. While Deborah is initially skeptical of the students and their goal to film her daily life, she eventually allows it. The iciness of their reception never completely melts, though, and it is this socially tense dynamic that helps propel the film forward, causing the viewer to engage critically with the presence of the camera in this woman’s home.
While filming her, the students notice increasingly strange behavior that may not be explained by Deborah’s diagnosis, if it can be explained at all. The film probes really fascinating questions of the ethics of observation, and the border between the supernatural and what are considered non-normative psychological states.
If you get through all of the previous films and still feel they’re just not quite close enough to the feeling you got from watching Hereditary, you might want to just check out Midsommar, especially now that it’s available on streaming platforms. Ari Aster’s second film, Midsommar is about a group of young Americans who travel to a remote part of Sweden for a festival. Each person in the group has their own reason for going. Christian and Josh (Jack Reynor and William Jackson Harper) go because they are anthropology graduate students researching European midsummer festivals. (It will be noted from the beginning that this kind of academic disinterest often backfires in folk horror.)
The film is most interested, however, in Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) a psychology student who is still recovering from the traumatic loss of her sister and both parents. Dani is dating Christian, a man who, despite whatever positive qualities he possesses, is a very bad, very insensitive boyfriend. All of this background of trauma and dejection makes Dani either the perfect or worst guest at the festival, depending on your perspective.
This film has all of Aster’s fingerprints from Hereditary but with a stunning, expansive landscape and a refreshing, contemporary take on folk horror that is informed not just by the genre but also by a deep investment in emotional storytelling and relationship dynamics.
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Midnight Mass is perfect for the spooky season.
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