Director: Ari Aster
Screenplay: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne
Review: RJ Bland
Every year it seems as if there is an indie horror movie that gets hyped up to epic proportions after a raft of positive feedback from initial festival screenings. As a genre fan, hearing about an upcoming 'future classic' is music to the ears yet quite often this increased expectation level can lead to some feeling a little cold afterwards. Recent examples such as The Babadook, The Witch, It Follows and Get Out have all garnered a lot of early critical praise but most have received something of mixed reaction from mainstream audiences. This year's must-see-horror (besides A Quiet Place) has been ''Hereditary' – a movie that has been talked about for quite some time amongst fans of the genre. Starring Toni Collette and helmed by first time Director Ari Aster, the film has been called 'the scariest film for decades' and 'this generations The Exorcist' by several distinguished film writers. Those are bold claims and won't do anything to dampen down expectation levels. But does Hereditary fall foul of it's own hype or does it manage to live up to those lofty comparisons?
The film begins with the funeral of an elderly woman named Ellen, where her daughter, Annie (Toni Collette) delivers a strained eulogy to a small group of unfamiliar guests. Her mother was a very private person and despite the fact that Annie had been caring for her mother at the end, they had been estranged for most of their lives. She suffered from several mental illnesses which all placed a huge strain on her relationships with her daughter – and her grandchildren, 17-year-old Peter (Alex Wolff) and creepy 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro). 'Shouldn't I feel sadder?' Annie asks her husband (played by Gabriel Byrne) when they return home after the funeral. 'You should feel however you feel. It'll come', he responds. However whilst Annie tries to make sense of her feelings about her mother and what her loss means to her, strange things start to happen to the family. And it's not long before we begin to realise that grandma's legacy could have dire consequences for those left behind.
Hereditary is a film that is going to (and has already) divided audiences. Those going in expecting and hoping for a rollercoaster ride of thrills and scares will come away disappointed. Much like The Witch, the film opts for more of a slow-burn approach, meshing together a heavy combination of family drama with ambiguously unsettling horror. For those interested in current horror trends, it's quite clear that the themes of dysfunctional families and parent/child anxieties are at the forefront of the genre right now. A Quiet Place, The Witch, The Babadook and now Hereditary. Sure, all of them offer up a variety of sinister external forces but the real dread comes from the complexities and dynamics of the family. The idea that someone closest to you can be a potential danger is something that's clearly hitting a nerve with audiences right now.
It's a film that's packed with ideas and has an almost scatter gun approach to themes, tone and subject matter. Primarily it is a film about trauma, and the affect that it can have on people. The relationships between the central characters as their world begins to fall apart around them is central to the story but beyond that we are treated to a number of elements that make you unsure as to what kind of horror movie you are watching. Is it a ghost story? A haunted house movie? A possession movie? A film about mental illness? Is it an ultra-black comedy (yes, there are some comedic moments)? You can make your own mind up but there is almost a kitchen-sink feel to proceedings at times, and you'll either dig the unpredictability of it all or you'll get a little frustrated.
From a technical perspective, Hereditary is a real triumph. The opening shot, where we zoom into a room of a miniature model house only for it to seamlessly change into the bedroom of one of the kids, is an indicator of what is to come. Aster's careful, deliberate direction manages to keep a lid on and contain all of the ideas and story threads and cookie crumbs that are contained within the quite excellent script. Great directors (And storytellers) can make you tense up by just showing an empty room and the attention to detail within Hereditary is quite striking. A second or third viewing would undoubtedly be worthwhile. The acting performances here are top notch too. Byrne is quietly brilliant as the long-suffering husband and both Shapiro and Wolff are great too. However it is Toni Collette who is rightly receiving acclaim for her turn as a highly complex character trying to navigate her way through grief and whilst attempting to hold down a job and look after a family. Much like her turn in The Sixth Sense, she brings a real sense of humanity to the role and it's quite impossible not root for – and to like her. It all makes it that much harder when things start to go wrong.
The criticism that has been levelled at the film by some is that it isn't scary enough. Indeed, as mentioned before, part of that Is down to the marketing campaign and the early critical praise, but ultimately this film won't connect with everyone on that level. Fear, like comedy, is quite a subjective subject and a lot of the fears and anxieties that Hereditary explores will not equate with some viewers. Indeed, my initial response after seeing the movie was that although it offered up a number of intense and unsettling scenes, it didn't 'get to me' as much as I would have hoped. However, some things take a little bit longer to kick in, to gestate. As I discovered during the early hours of the morning when I still couldn't get off to sleep. Sure, there were a couple of scenes in particular that have been hard to shake (one involving Charlie, one Annie) and that will live long in the memory. Those things didn't help in the wee hours. However, what was troubling me was bigger than that and I am still trying to compute what exactly it was that unsettled me so much about the film. Quite often, ones own worries and fears involve members of your own family and Hereditary was so nightmarish in that respect that I think that like Annie, I was experiencing my own form of delayed trauma. The film contains little to no jump scares and doesn't really rely on gore or anything too visceral (barring one exception!). However, the sense of dread and unease that gradually builds throughout the movie is more preferable in my humble opinion. It's these movies that you remember years later.
Of course the movie is by no means perfect and although Hereditary feels similar to other great movies such as Rosemary's Baby, Kill List, Sinister and The Babadook, it sometimes feels like it is exactly that. Not too much more than an amalgamation of other great horror films before it. Aster's direction and the character he creates will also leave some feeling a little cold too. There's almost a sense of detachment from proceedings that serves to stifle any real sense of empathy at times to what you are witnessing on screen. The film is also guilty of several groan inducing examples of lazy exposition. Surely old photo albums and dusty old books that explain key plot points are a little too convenient? It appears not.
Ultimately, those flaws are outweighed by the things that Hereditary gets right. Scariest movie of the last 30 years? Perhaps not. As good as The Exorcist? Nope. But it's still a film that will stand the test of time and will rightly be considered a horror triumph.