UK Release Date: 15th June 2018
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, Ann Dowd
Synopsis: After the death of her mentally ill mother, a woman must come to terms with her grief and face up to her own flaws as a woman and as a parent, while a strange and unsettling series of supernatural events start to occur in her home.
Every year, the Sundance Film Festival seems to yield one horror movie that is declared to be a new masterpiece of the genre. In the past, films like The Babadook and The Witch have been given huge multiplex releases in the wake of major festival hype. It’s something of a double-edged sword as it inherently creates expectations that are very difficult to live up to. With that in mind, Hereditary arrives in UK cinemas this week as arguably the most acclaimed horror in recent memory following its festival bow in Utah. First-timer Ari Aster has certainly constructed an elegant, powerful horror that meditates on the trauma of grief, but it lacks the chilling impact that would elevate it to the status of classic.
Aster’s world is immediately an unsettling one. The film begins with a slow zoom into a miniature house, which merges immediately into the action of the world as we know it – establishing a clear link between the real and the unreal. Hereditary‘s first act is shot with an eerie, gliding camera that brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s Steadicam exploration of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Establishing shots and character introductions are shot from slightly too far away, as if the audience is gazing at a doll’s house, rather than gaining privileged entry into the existence of these people.
The central family is introduced in a state of grief. Annie (Toni Collette) is mourning the recent death of her mother – who seemed more interested in Annie’s daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) than her own offspring. Annie increasingly separates herself from husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and locks herself in her work room, putting together a display of miniature figures for an upcoming exhibition. Meanwhile, Annie’s son Peter (Alex Wolff) is becoming detached and failing at school.
It would be a spoiler to discuss much more than the setup of that basic family dynamic, but it’s safe to say that, before Hereditary‘s strange finale, the audience is treated to séances, the prospect of demonic possession and some of the most horrifying images committed to celluloid in years. Aster has spoken about how his creative process “starts with images” and that is abundantly clear when watching the film, which pivots and morphs around a series of grotesque shots that burn themselves on to the retina of every audience member – not to be forgotten for quite some time.
The first half of Hereditary feels controlled and precise – an exercise in unsettling terror. Aster is a filmmaker who credits his audience with intelligence – a throwaway line from an early scene proves crucial to one of the most shocking moments – and there’s a real sense of class to the way the story builds. The filmmaking is assured and engrossing, helped by Pawel Pogorzelski’s lensing and Colin Stetson’s bold, unnerving score.
Toni Collette, too, must take much of the credit for the successes of Hereditary. Her performance is one of dramatic gravitas, but equally never shies away from the all-out insanity demanded of a horror movie leading lady. Just like Essie Davis in The Babadook, Collette unravels and becomes more frazzled as the action moves forward, becoming obsessed with the seemingly supernatural goings-on. She’s a real counterpoint to Alex Wolff, who is equally brilliant as a teenager stunned into silence by acute post-traumatic stress. Wolff is a real rising star and this is, by far, his best performance to date. Milly Shapiro, meanwhile, looms large over every aspect of the movie’s story and could definitely have a strong career as an unsettling horror star.
Hereditary is a movie that is peppered with moments and images. When the film is at its best, it is truly phenomenal, but it suffers in the languors between those standout moments. With a lengthy running time of more than two hours, the palpable sense of unease proves impossible to sustain, and there are periods of time when Aster’s unconventional pacing allows the tension to slip. Once the pieces start coming together in the third act, it’s impossible to be as invested as in the tremendous opening 45 minutes. It’s always tough to give a horror mystery a satisfying conclusion, but Aster doubles down on a disappointing explanation for what’s happening.
Most disappointingly, the grief that gets the story moving and serves as its allegorical undercurrent feels like it sits on the sidelines once the machinations of the plot kick into gear. The Babadook functioned as an exquisitely designed allegory for grief that never let go of its knot of tension, but that’s not something that applies to Hereditary. The presence of grief and bereavement is always there and Aster definitely has something to say about how it can unmoor sane people from their lives, but this thematic exploration never feels complete.
And that, in many ways, feels like it’s the key issue with Hereditary. It’s an undeniably scary watch, with some images that are pure nightmare fuel in the best possible way and a filmmaking team with a level of flair that suggests they do have a genuine masterpiece in their future. However, it’s a somewhat flabby affair with a few spare parts – sorry, Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd – that never quite coalesces into the thematic gut punch that it should be. When it gets it right, it gets it very right indeed, but the overriding final emotion is one of confusion and slight disappointment – not terror.
Pop or Poop?
Hereditary is an ambitious and exciting horror movie that packs in some immediately memorable scares and terrifying visual images, as well as boasting a committed and deranged central performance from Toni Collette. Ari Aster cannot be faulted for his ability to create atmosphere and engineer a nightmare, but he doesn’t stick the landing when it comes to his themes. The final act reveal, too, feels more than a little clumsy and ends proceedings on a bit of a bum note.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.