There’s a huge buzz around Hereditary, the new horror movie directed by first-timer Ari Aster. Reviews are calling it ‘a new generation’s The Exorcist‘ and ‘the scariest horror film in a decade’. So does it live up to the hype?
I saw it at Sundance London. It has earned much of its reputation from festival screenings and from the trailer, which infamously and amusingly caused kids and parents to flee the cinema when it was accidentally shown in a Perth screening of Peter Rabbit.
It’s the latest from production / distribution company A24, which in the past five years has developed an excellent reputation as curator of quality films such as Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Jonathan Glazer’s arthouse hit Under the Skin, the underrated A Most Violent Year, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, the exceptional kidnapping drama Room, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Disaster Artist, and Paul Schrader’s imminent First Reformed (which also premiered at Sundance). It also brought us horror films Good Time and The Witch. The anticipation is high.
It’s certainly one of the most effective horror films that I’ve seen recently, although I think A Silent Place is better. Despite drawing from familiar genre elements, it’s creepily effective and is a thrilling, enjoyable ride.
The film concerns a family coming to terms with their collective grief. Annie (Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense) is a successful artist who lives in a large house with husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne, The Usual Suspects, Miller’s Crossing, The End of Violence), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who is an odd, reclusive child.
The film begins with the family attending the funeral of their grandmother Ellen, a strange, secretive woman who had a difficult relationship with her daughter Annie. We learn that there is a history of mental illness and suicide in Annie’s family. Soon after the funeral, Charlie begins to see apparitions of the grandmother, and she herself starts behaving oddly. The grandmother’s grave is desecrated, and the house becomes haunted. Tensions pull the family apart, and Annie in particular has difficulty coping; she becomes hysterical and obsessed with spiritualism, to the concern of her husband. Further tragedy and guilt follow, and fears grow around the dead grandmother’s apparently supernatural powers and her children’s chilling inheritance.
The ‘haunted house’ is a familiar horror motif, but Hereditary gives this a thrilling refresh. Annie is an artist who makes autobiographical miniature models; the opening shot (also in the trailer) is a slow pan around her studio, where she has built a miniature of the family home. The camera slowly zooms into one of the model’s bedrooms, which in a neat dislocation turns out to be real. It’s a disorienting gimmick that reminds us that we’re watching a make-believe story and perhaps not everything should be taken at face value. And it introduces the sense that everyone in the house is being controlled by an unseen hand, like dolls in a dollhouse.
The film has a strong sense of place. It feels at once large and claustrophobic. We spend most of our time in the house and grow very familiar with its layout, fixtures and fittings. Aster said that the films of Powell and Pressburger were influences when he created the sets, thinking about colour, about creating worlds, and about how to tell a story as exuberantly as possible. The models are almost but not quite exact replicas of the real house, the small differences are subliminally jarring. As Annie becomes more agitated and solitary, her models become increasingly unsettling and we’re never quite sure if they depict true events or if they are distorted by her disturbed state of mind.
The kids’ tree house in the garden is another miniature space, the glow of the convection heaters lights the interior in a sinister fiery orange that’s visible from Peter’s bedroom window. It’s a cocoon-like refuge, first for Charlie and later Annie, but it’s often far from comforting.
In its paranoia of the occult, this film most resembles Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and of course it follows a long lineage of haunted house movies, perhaps the best known is The Haunting. It also appropriates incidental details from other movies, such as the scene in last year’s Thelma where a bird fatally crashes into a classroom window as a result of some sort of distraught telekinesis. And there’s a remarkable scene near the end, strongly echoing the ‘spider walk’ scene in The Exorcist, where a static, frightening image is hidden in plain view. It’s a masterclass in misdirection using camera focus, movement and composition and in the cinema there was an audible ripple as each viewer noticed it one by one. Despite this borrowing, Hereditary still feels original.
The cast is small, and with the exception of spiritualist Joan (Ann Dowd, The Handmaid’s Tale), the action remains mostly with the family. The acting is uniformly exceptional. Toni Collette is at the centre of the film and gets the showier role that will probably win awards. However the others are just as good. Alex Wolff is great as the teenage son, wracked with fear, grief, anger and guilt, and Milly Shapiro is very well cast as the creepy insular daughter. Gabriel Byrne’s role is very understated but pivotal; he is emotionally grounded and anchors the film as the other characters become increasingly distraught and distant. Interestingly, his level-headed character is the only one who isn’t a blood-relative of Annie.
Despite the familiar horror tropes, we believe the fears and anxieties of these complex and nuanced characters. Each member of the family is going through the emotional turmoil of extreme grief, with the supernatural elements layered on top. Aster screened Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers to the crew; both films are about suffering and grief. There’s no one single protagonist and each of the characters maintain some mystery and detachment despite the emotional turmoil. We just don’t know what’s coming next, nor can we be sure if the actions are self-determined or by some more supernatural influence.
Another remarkable aspect of the film is the soundtrack by Colin Stetson, the saxophonist in Arcade Fire. The pieces scored for ensemble reinforce and heighten the film’s narrative. Other pieces feature Stetson’s remarkable solo bass saxophone. Stetson’s playing technique works uses circular breathing to create looping, throbbing atmospheres. His playing is often low in the mix, creating an almost-subliminal, queasy atmosphere. The music generates tension in otherwise innocent scenes that have no obvious menace or suspense. It builds and sustains an unsettling tone for the entire movie.
Although the central concept is less original than, say, It Follows, Hereditary is very self-consistent and its central ideas are fully followed through. On reflection, there’s much echoing and prefiguring of things to come in the script and visuals. Motifs of fire and decapitations recur. There isn’t a final twist or surprise, rather we get the sense of a film reaching its natural, pre-determined conclusion. It’s remarkable how the film retains interest even though we can easily anticipate the overall direction it will take – we just don’t know how it will get there. Unfortunately as with many horror films the final payoff is ever so slightly weak in light of the carefully sustained build-up that precedes it.
Ultimately how scary this film is will depend on the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. The Exorcist was most frightening for Christians who genuinely believed in possession and exorcism. Similarly, Hereditary will be most terrifying for viewers who are willing to believe in ghosts, demons and spiritualism, if only for the film’s 127 minute duration.
Hereditary is a very enjoyable film. It might not live up to the hype, but it’s a remarkable first feature and I’d recommend it strongly.
Hereditary will be released in the UK on 15th June 2018.Follow @davefilmblog