Directed by Ari Aster
It’s that once or twice a year when mainstream critics embrace our beloved genre again. As such, expect prefixes like ‘intelligent’ or ‘psychological’ to feature heavily to disguise it’s still a horror they’re talking about. Yes, after a lot of hype, and an ace trailer, its finally here. Hereditary is the stunning debut feature, from writer-director Ari Aster, and marks him out as one to watch in future. To call it the best chiller of the year so far is to do it a disservice, given 2018 hasn’t had many memorable ones. As would calling it the best since Gerald’s Game, since that’s not even had a first birthday. So I’ll add that I fully expect this go down as one of the defining art-house and/or supernatural, horrors of its generation. It’s also nothing like Insidious. Go buy a ticket! It’s best seen blind.
If you’re still here, I’ll try my best not to spoil anything so won’t mention things outside the opening half hour. This caution isn’t because the film has a huge twist half way through, or some gimmick like it all being a dream. It’s more because it takes a long time for the premise to become clear, and is all the better for the deliberate, slow pace. In short, it’s about a family coping with loss. Add guilt, plus mediations on some of the bad things passed down when you’re born to the wrong people, and you got a horror that’s equally universal and unconventional. At the start, artist Annie (Collette) buries her emotionally abusive, and deeply troubled, mother. Not that her body being underground stops her from haunting her daughter, who she appears to that night in her studio. A ghost, a manifestation of remorse or both? It’s tough to tell. Not knowing what, or how, to feel Annie joins a grief counselling group to discuss their difficult relationship – something she keeps from her supportive husband Steve (Byrne). Elsewhere, her withdrawn daughter Charlie (Shapiro), who was always her grandma’s favourite, starts to act up and pot smoking son Peter (Wolff) goes through the usual growing pains. Then one night, something very, very bad happens.
I’ll stop there. It maybe doesn’t sound like the stuff of nightmares so far, but from the start of the second act it fast becomes one of the most intense horrors I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not jump out your seat scary, although there are a couple of moments that go down the ghost train route. Interestingly, even these bits aren’t telegraphed, with the scary thing tending to be onscreen, buried away to be gradually noticed, rather than announcing itself. Rather, Hereditary is about creating a palpable sense of dread that builds up and up until a mad crescendo ending that unites all the different strands of its layered storytelling. Again though, I’m loathe to say too much, as it’s the sort of film you’re best immersing yourself within. Something I can say, since it’s obvious from the disorienting opening shot that introduces the world as a real-life diorama, is it’s absolutely beautiful. On a technical level, this really is one of the most outstanding horrors I’ve seen in years. The star of the show is the set design, with so many small details in every last room. With the film drawing attention to its own appearance via miniatures, that provide a catharsis for Annie along with a way to project her downward spiralling state of mind, the home matters. The house’s layout and lighting are really something, and mined well for mood and framing – hinting at all sorts of things, abstract or corporeal, that may be lurking in the shadows. The audio is also great, with some unnerving motifs – one sound in particular is bound to become the movie’s calling card.
Scriptwise, the abstract plot, of a family handling their grief, is sublime. There’s some really good human drama in there, with maybe the tensest dinner scene recorded being an excruciating highlight. All main parts are deeply flawed, keeping them interesting, and at times you almost forget the film’s foremost aim is to frighten audiences. Unfortunately, the literal story is a bit less convincing, with the character motives not being fully integrated into the themes. Moreover, the third act hinges upon one character finding a creepy old book that fills in the blanks: an awkward plot device, and lazy writing that’s all the more notable because of how good a film it’s in. Still, the sense of spooky inevitability, as drummed in by the recurring dolls-houses, makes up for this, giving proceedings a real air of tragedy. As per Sophocles, who is discussed onscreen, the family are “pawns in a horrible, hopeless machine”; an idea it’s hard to top for terror. The reveals that come later are all the more crushing because of this.
The actors more than meet the demands of this outstanding source material. All of the leads have complex roles, with well judged arcs, and take to them with skill. Seeing Milly Shapiro, in her onscreen debut, manage to evoke sympathy for Charlie, whilst also been really darn eerie, is a revelation. Wolff also handles the meaty material, as his character undergoes serious changes – his switch from too school for school stoner to quivering, sleepless mess is entirely believable. Still, to pick one, if there’s any justice, Tony Collete will be walking away with an Oscar next year. Annie is put through the emotional meat-grinder and some parts, especially one with a fireplace, would be career highlights for anybody.
To finish with the elephant in the room – thanks to lucky gits getting invited the festivals, this has been hyped as the scariest horror movie of the decade, or even ever . I don’t agree with either statement, and doubt in fifty years it’ll have the same rite of passage feel as something like The Shining or The Exorcist. This isn’t to belittle Hereditary, as it’s arguably less balls to the wall horror. As per The Witch or The Babadook I think it will be fondly remembered for its suspense on a small scale, accomplished moviemaking, horrible, innovative frights, and exploration of real family issues. It’s a strong reminder of the genre as its best, and how the right people can push the parameters of a classic template to great effect. Along with being fucking spooky. Now see it, before someone spoils it.