US (2018) Dir. Ari Aster
This is an odd way to begin a review but my loss of hearing is hereditary on my mother’s side, whilst my height comes from my father’s side. Why am I telling you this? Because these are regular examples of something passed down generations of a family via their genes, unlike the subject of this much hyped horror film.
Artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is coming to terms with the death of her estranged mother, whose last few years were wrapped in mystery. Annie starts sleepwalking and sees apparitions of her mother in her studio. Husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is worried Annie is heading for a breakdown, daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is lost in her own world and teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) is disinterested in the family dramas.
Lying to his parents that he is attending a school event Peter is forced to take Charlie with him to what is actually a party. The evening ends in tragedy but marks the start of more torment for the family as bizarre occurrences blight their days, which Annie traces back to the secretive lifestyle of her mother.
“Scary” has become a nebulous term within the horror milieu ever since the relaxation of censorship allowed filmmakers to be more graphic in making the audience squirm and scream. The days of women fainting at the sight of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster are long gone – now it takes severed heads with tarantulas spewing out the mouth to give filmgoers the willies, whilst Asia has perfected the psychological horror.
Hereditary employs all three of these tactics to get a rise out us, effectively combining grotesque imagery, straight out shocks and unnerving atmospherics in equal measure. The contention is whether it needed 127-minutes to do this. The first hour is ungodly dull, save for the crucial tragedy during Peter’s night out which is arguably the film’s highpoint as far as bravado goes.
The importance of this risky development forms the remainder of the plot, well some of it, but outside of this, the post funeral blues are the focus causing the pace to practically grind to a halt and is more likely to depress viewers than spook them. Depending on your mileage, this is more likely to be seen as calm before the storm world building instead, designed to engender sympathy for the cast.
Annie attends a support group where she meets Joan (Ann Dowd) and finds an ear for her woes, until Joan suggests holding a séance to contact her deceased loved ones that shockingly yields results. Meanwhile Peter begins to experience visitations from beyond the grave and other paranormal intrusions on his life that cause problems for him at home and at school.
I’ve deliberately held back on the specifics of the plot here as to avoiding spoiling the catalyst for the family’s horrifying trauma at the hands of the supernatural. Once the hour mark arrives, the scares start to become more frequent and some are admittedly innovative and fresh even if the surrounding circumstances don’t stray too far from the modern horror blueprint.
What is interesting is how the suffering is shared between two people and not one, with only Steve left to be the exasperated one struggling to offer his unconditional support when he can’t understand or cope with the madness surrounding him. Ari Aster’s script also does a great job in giving both victims their own terror to overcome, rather than the same one, making a resolution seem even less assured as the story progresses.
Since horror films ordinarily spend their time building to an almighty crescendo, it seems Aster got a bit carried away with setting up two possible outcomes that might not even converge and falls foul of the “being too clever for your own good” fate that sees a writer err on the side of convention in seeking a solution.
The third act sees Annie make a discovery that effectively comes out of the blue given the direction the narrative took prior to this, but Aster outdoes himself with a twisty and ostensibly incongruous finale that has proven controversial by being so baffling. It’s actually a good twist in catching us unaware, that is if you didn’t join the dots from the drip fed information, but very leftfield enough to leave viewers unfulfilled.
Making this such a painful and harrowing experience for the audience to endure as well as the cast is of course the performances. Leading from the front is Toni Collette, who may well have traumatised herself in digging deep within to produce such a raw essaying of Annie’s descent into grief stricken madness. Fans of Gabriel Byrne however will feel short-changed by his infrequent appearances but does well in what he is given.
Peter is not much of a likeable kid so it takes a while to warm to Alex Wolff, yet it is hard not to be impressed by how he throws himself around when being tormented by his spectral nemesis. Standing out from the crowd, quite literally, is Milly Shapiro, the 16 year-old veteran of the stage musical whose unusual looks make Charlie a curious and memorable character to add to the rogue’s gallery of creepy horror kids.
For his debut feature, Ari Aster shows an intuitive sense of understanding what makes a good horror and a keen eye for innovation, beginning with the fantastic and opening shot of a doll’s house that is actually the house in the film. The minimalist music soundtrack aids the unsettling moods and atmosphere s much as the stillness and door colour palette.
Billed as “the scariest film of recent times” Hereditary comes with high expectations. But the inherent problem (if you’ll pardon the pun) of such hype is the film often fails to live up to it, leaving some of us wondering what all the fuss is about. For this writer, partially due to its sluggish first hour, Hereditary sits somewhere between overhyped and a well-made, decent scare fest.