REVIEW – ‘Hereditary’

Hype is a dangerous thing for most films, but particularly those of the horror genre. When a horror movie comes along that’s hailed as “the scariest film of all time” or it’s called a “gamechanger,” it raises the level of expectation for those yet to see it. Naturally, this helps with box-office returns, but it can lead to disastrous disappointments for audiences who rush out expecting to be left literally shaking in their seat. This is the unfortunate situation facing Hereditary, the debut film from writer/director Ari Aster which received glowing reactions from the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Many are potentially going to be disappointed by this film. Or left scratching their heads wondering what the hell everyone is raving about. It’s not your typical horror film. This borders far more on the arthouse level than mainstream fare. If that’s not really your cup-of-tea with the horror genre, consider yourself warned. Calling the film “scary” is probably the wrong word. Hereditary is deeply, deeply unsettling and horrifically disturbing, filled with imagery that will genuinely haunt you for a lifetime. Put it this way – I had serious trouble sleeping after my screening.

Miniature model artist Annie Graham (an Oscar-worthy Toni Collette) is dealing with the recent death of her estranged mother, Ellen. In her eulogy at the funeral, she openly admits to having a difficult and fractured relationship with her mother, who she describes as a deeply private and mysterious woman. While clearly upset over her mother’s passing, Annie doesn’t seem as devastated as she thinks she should be. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and teenage son, Peter (a terrific Alex Wolff) aren’t particularly affected either, both seeming rather nonchalant about the whole thing.

The only member of the family to elicit any strong reaction to Ellen’s passing is Annie’s young daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a disturbed 13-year-old with a death stare that could strip paint and a penchant for drawing creepy etchings in her sketchbook. While Charlie deals with her grief with further drawings and disturbing craft work (one of which involves a recently-deceased pigeon…) and Peter blazes his emotions away with marijuana, Annie seeks help with a local grief management group. It’s here she ponders if her family may be cursed. Her clinically-depressed father literally starved himself to death, while her schizophrenic brother later hanged himself, blaming his mother for putting voices inside his head. Could the curse extend to Annie and her family?

While browsing through her mother’s possessions, Annie discovers a book on spirituality with a cryptic handwritten note inside, suggesting her mother was possibly meddling with darker arts. When she begins to hear and see things that cannot be explained, Annie starts to wonder if she’s losing her mind or tapping into her mother’s spirit. It’s here that help seems to arrive in the form of Joan (Ann Dowd), a concerned member of the grief group who recently lost her son and 7-year-old grandson. Introducing Annie to the idea of a seance, Joan offers her the chance to reconnect with her departed mother to seek answers and guidance…and this is where it all goes to hell.

That’s really all one can say without spoiling too much. It’s best you go into this film as light on details as possible. There’s one horrific major event about an hour into the storyline which essentially drives the rest of the film, yet cannot possibly be mentioned here. You need to feel the shock of this moment because, my god, does it hit you like a sledgehammer to the stomach. Everything leading up to this moment is a slow-burn of dread and foreshadowing where Aster takes pleasure in toying with our expectations. There are dozens of moments in this film where you seemingly think you know just what’s about to happen, but he wisely subverts this with either absolutely nothing or something much, much worse.

Aster also wisely avoids the endless stream of jump-scares most horror movies serve up. There’s a few of them, naturally, but they’re thankfully so sparingly used, making them that much more effective. His shocks instead come from his dazzling and confronting imagery, which may be some of the most downright disturbing of recent times. Again, there’s no point in spoiling them and losing the potential impact. Just brace yourself for some truly grotesque and unspeakable images that will follow you home.

But the glue which holds this film together is the astonishingly-good Toni Collette, in what is easily the best female performance this year and will be damn hard to beat. It’s a career-defining tour-de-force display, which is saying something, given her back-catalogue. Her commitment to this character is remarkable, and watching her portray Annie’s descent into madness and chaos is utterly sublime, albeit completely devastating. There’s one particularly dinner table confrontation with Peter which is a genuine triumph of acting. It’s wildly impressive Wolff is able to keep up, but he somehow manages to hold his own. This scene could be Collette’s Oscar moment and it’s hard to see her not being in serious awards contention, come year’s end.

The production itself looks gorgeous, with Pawel Pogorzelski’s ivocative cinematography gifting the film with a consistently ominous and unsettling vibe. He takes the camera to close-ups at just the right moments, perfectly capturing the pain and fear on the faces of our tormented characters. The set design is so pristinely perfect, it actually feels as if the entire film is staged inside one of Annie’s intricate miniature models. And Colin Stetson’s score supports the action perfectly, without ever crossing into the melodramatic strings so pointlessly synonymous with this genre.

Sadly, the film stumbles in its rather silly conclusion, which ramps up the horror to another level, yet strangely feels the need to endlessly explain everything to the audience and leave everything tied up in a neat little package. It’s not at all necessary and suggests Aster struggled to conclude his otherwise masterful piece of cinema. For a film which has just spent so much time deftly twisting your presumptions and speculations, it’s an unfortunate misstep that leaves the audience feeling a little cheated and disappointed. Regardless, it’s still a twisted and unnerving conclusion that will linger long in your mind. I’m never going near a treehouse again.

Horror movies are just as subjective and objective as any other genre of cinema. It’s why I wouldn’t ever think to proclaim something the supposed scariest film of all time. What moves me to absolute fear may move you to fits of laughter. Is Hereditary one of the best horror movies of recent times? Absolutely. Is it one of the greatest of all time? Sure. Is it the scariest horror film ever made? Well, that’s up for you to decide. From where I stand, it’s a film which leaves a deep imprint on your mind that’s impossible to shake. If that isn’t the sign of a brilliant horror movie, I don’t know what is.

★★★★1/2☆

Distributor: StudioCanal
Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Mallory Bechtel
Director: Ari Aster
Screenplay: Ari Aster
Producers: Kevin Frakes, Lars Knudsen, Buddy Patrick
Cinematography: Pawel Pogorzelski
Production Design: Grace Yun
Music: Colin Stetson
Editor: Jennifer Lame, Lucian Johnston
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Date: 7th June 2018 (Australia)

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