And this movie shows you how much it does.
“I just don’t want to put any more stress on my family.”
I’m going to be upfront about something: I actually wasn’t super excited about seeing Hereditary. I knew it was going to be good based on the company that was putting it out (the current indie darling A24) but the trailers were obnoxiously aggressive in hyping it up as the “next Exorcist”. However, my feelings began to change once an incident involving the film’s trailer and a screening of Peter Rabbit in Australia that accidentally played it. Unsurprisingly, it terrified the kids and amused me in a sick way. Something about that got me strangely more interested than I already was. And the more closer it got to release date, the more stranger and uglier things I heard about it made it something that’d appeal to me.
Cut to me in the theater with my friend Joey pretty much petrified at the film’s utterly insane climatic finish while somehow fighting the urge to strangle the assholes in my screening saying that the film sucked or snickering at the climax.
Horror has been going through a major resurgence this decade, and to say I’ve been happy with it is putting it very lightly. From the ashes of grotesque torture porn and cheap found footage movies have come films that psychologically torment their audiences using a variety of methods: Genuinely nightmarish imagery, suspense and tension being built to a level that makes it hard to breathe, powerful metaphorical meanings that use conventional stories, actually giving the audience time to spend with characters that allow us to sympathize or at the very least understand them, unique visual presentations that range from the sleekest of new looking films to paying major tribute to the best of the best from the 70’s-80’s era of the genre. Films like The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch, Green Room, It Comes At Night and so many more have been leading the charge in this new movement. And to say nothing of what’s been coming out of the mainstream side of the coin with other pictures like The Conjuring franchise, Split, A Cure For Wellness, Get Out, IT, mother! and A Quiet Place. Movies that don’t forget to just be good for the genre but be good in general.
The newest soldier to join the ranks is Hereditary, the debut feature of writer-director Ari Aster, who’s been responsible for a series of short films of which is most notable he did was one in 2011 called The Strange Thing About The Johnsons. Aster seemingly has a fascination with deeply ugly family issues in both Johnsons and his full length film, to the point of unnerving intimacy. Family is portrayed as a relentlessly ugly, almost hateful and pointless thing that no matter how much they claim to love each other, it just boils down to hateful self destruction and a stubborn refusal to just admit that they screwed up. However, while Johnsons was portrayed as a straightforward drama, Hereditary is a full blown genre picture, with Aster throwing in everything but the kitchen sink into a movie that’s as mad as it is confident in its form and craftsmanship. Just from this first film, he shows a lot of promise for future endeavors and I can’t help but be both excited and thoroughly terrified about what he does next.
Annie Graham Leigh (Toni Collette) is trying to grieve the loss of her mother Ellen. She’s never had a happy life with her between mum’s mood swings, private interests and the deaths of her dad and brother. And Annie isn’t exactly mother of the year either, with her rather “off” feeling relationships she has with her horny, stoner son Peter (Alex Wolff) and the aloof, not all together daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). However, due to Ellen’s passing, strange forces beyond their comprehension begin affecting the family: Annie is acting more unstable, Peter starts hallucinating, Charlie starts doing messed up things in efforts to create her mangled looking dolls – the only one who seems to have any wits about themselves is dear old dad Steven (Gabriel Byrne). And it doesn’t take long for things to hit the fan that threaten to destroy the Grahams – Either psychologically, physically or both.
The horrors on display in Hereditary linger and alienate, with very few scenes having any sense of relief or comfort. Even the earlier scenes before everything goes to hell feels “off” and director Ari Aster takes his sweet time in nearly drowning the audience in the discomfort. So much so, that it starts to bungle the pacing it a bit. Hereditary runs a bit over two hours and around the second act, it really starts to feel like it. While it isn’t unusual for horror films to run over two hours (look at films like the original Exorcist or recent examples like The Wailing or IT), there’s a reason why most of them run under two hours. From what I understand, Aster’s initial cut was around three hours I think he could have cut it down just a little bit more than what we have. Get it down to around an 105 minutes or so and you’d have a near perfect horror flick.
But even with that nitpick, he accomplishes so much with his first feature than even most experienced filmmakers couldn’t even pull off. The shocks are sporadic but extremely effective in searing their way into your memory (one moment in particular happens around the half hour mark that might just make you want to stop watching the film entirely) and the film keeps itself together with moments like this. Until it brings out the big guns in the absolutely insane climax, where Hereditary turns into something that can best be described as an actual nightmare, a literal hell from which there is no escape.
Above all, Aster tells us that some of the most truly terrifying things out there are grief and how it rips a family apart, how people can never admit to the fuck ups they’ve done and the secrets they hold close. Given some of the things I’ve had going on with my family and some of the things Annie says in the picture, the film hits almost a little close to home at times.
And part of what sells this hell is the performances from the entire cast. Toni Collette has certainly dipped her toes into the horror genre before with The Sixth Sense and Krampus but not like this. It’s a full fledged, utterly nutty, go for broke performance that requires equal amounts of effort in both delivery and physicality. The things she does with her face in the film might be more nightmare worthy than the actual horrors that show up in the film, while her two big scenes (a montage involving a dead loved one that contains a continuous wail and pleas for death + a dinner night with family that becomes horribly awkward) becoming rightly iconic in their own ways. The supporting cast is no slouch either, with Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne and newcomer Milly Shapiro all giving their work in and then some. Wolff in particular does a lot of heavy lifting performance wise, having to show all sorts of varying degrees of grief, horror and despair. Anne Dowd also shows up in the film in a minor but important role that’s fun to watch.
Technical merits are also muscular, with Pawel Pogorzelski providing some absolutely sterling cinematography in playing around with shadows, off kilter angles and really playing up the almost “boxed” presentation of the film, having fun with the visual symbolism of Annie’s job of creating miniatures. Meanwhile, composer Colin Setson (who’s been involved with groups like Arcade Fire and Bon Iver) provides a wonderfully atmospheric score that compliments the film’s oppressive mood. According to interviews with Setson, Aster wanted music to sound “evil” and he most certainly succeeds in achieving this mood to hell and back. There’s one piece of music that plays towards at the end that I will not spoil but trust me, you’ll feel a simultaneous sense of awe and horror when it blares into your ear drums.
In some ways, Ari Aster seems to be taking a degree of sadistic glee with his film. He throws just about everything when it comes to horror tropes and they’re pulled off in a way that never feels overstuffed, despite my issues with the running time. And then there’s the hilariously cruel song he chooses for the film’s ending credits. Won’t say what the selection was but anyone familiar with a show like Mad Men should instantly pick up on the tune being played. Regardless, Hereditary is a terrific debut from a promising as hell director, one of the best horror flicks of the year and just flat out one 2018’s best. Believe the hype on this one, folks.