FilmSpace: Hereditary

Film critic Scott Wilson *cluck* reviews the latest horror *cluck* to set audiences on edge *cluck*

Hereditary – ★★★☆☆

Dir. Ari Aster; Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne; Rating: 15; Runtime: 127 mins

Back in the day, before Spotify, music fans would trust record labels to steer them right. They knew that if their preferred labels signed an artist, they were worth keeping an eye on. Before everything was free, you put your faith in something that was a marker of a worthy investment.

In A24, cinema has a distributor worth trusting. Over the last few years they have released Lady Bird, The Florida Project, A Ghost Story, 20th Century Women, Ex Machina, and The Lobster, to name a select few from their stellar catalogue. If they keep this up, they will be the Abba of cinema. 

They also released The Witch and It Comes at Night, two of horror’s more intriguing entries from the last couple of years. Both are driven by ideas rather than a more typical ghost-train approach. They are quiet, patient films that reward attention, but might alienate those looking for a few bumps in the night.

It makes sense, then, that Hereditary should set up home with A24 too. Coming out of its premiere at Sundance in January, it had best-of-year praise bestowed upon it before the year had even really began. Comparisons to The Exorcist followed, and since then its allure has only grown like an urban legend passed around a playground.

READ MORE FROM FILMSPACE – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Like The Witch and It Comes at Night, it is a slow-burn more concerned with unsettling tension than jump-scares. It follows the Graham family as they recover from a loss, casting a depressive shadow over their dollhouse-like home. Toni Collette’s Annie is a miniaturist artist whose grief manifests in her creations. She sleepwalks too, creeping her children out. At a support group, she reveals a dark and tragic family history that looms over her everyday life. 

When all of this fails to comfort her, she turns to a new friend who teachers her to be a medium. After initially making positive contact, things quickly turn more sinister. You get the idea.

Horror, along with other genres like romantic comedies and fantasy, is often given a rough time. When a particularly ambitious horror film comes along, there are those quick to dismiss the label and call it something else, like a psychological family nightmare; anything to keep genre films in their place and to save themselves from admitting to liking one.

Hereditary does aim high. In its portrayal of grief, Collette goes through the ringer. She cries and she screams and she looks exhausted. There is a horror to be found in knowing you have responsibility for things you cannot control – what will you bringing children into the world do to them? As a parent she is terrified of what she might have exposed her family to. 

Its spookiness is most effective when it requires you to scare yourself. Horror films know to utilise the dark, but Hereditary does it in such a way that it takes time for your eyes to adjust. As they do, as the scene comes into focus, your natural instincts are what alerts you to the scare. A number of patrons have only picked up on this after a second viewing, so keep your eyes peeled.

Even though it respectfully commits to the path it chooses, it veers so wildly from the emotional resonance and good-will it starts with.

The film’s problem comes when trying to marry these two strands. A film like The Witch has a lot going on – religion, patriarchy, female sexuality, witchcraft – but it all comes together so that, upon reflection, each facet informs every other facet. The film feels complete in a way that Hereditary never does. 

Collette’s portrayal of grief has rightly been lauded, and Alex Wolff’s youthful confusion as her son is equally key to the film’s emotional punches. Milly Shapiro as Annie’s daughter Charlie could become a horror icon with her bizarre clucking sound. She looks out at the world from behind sunken eyes, as if hard to reach.

Which is to say, the individual components that make up Hereditary are all of a high standard. The film has its own identity the way A24 can be relied upon to deliver, and it’s in the way the camera creeps round halls and into Annie’s miniature dioramas. Colin Stetson’s rhythmic score accentuates the huge house’s creaks and mysteries.

That it does not all come together, that the grief of the characters never syncs up with the supernatural elements, is an immense frustration. Even though it respectfully commits to the path it chooses, it veers so wildly from the emotional resonance and good-will it starts with. It is as if Collette’s portrayal of a grief-stricken mother exists in another film before being required to look horrified at ghostly happenings. 

Hereditary has received a lot of bloated praise. It is not film-of-the-year material, and it certainly is not the new Exorcist. What it is is a respectful entry into the horror canon that reaches for something while never quite getting there. I admire it for trying, and because of its seemingly lofty ambitious, it is all the more irritating when they never manifest. There is something to a communal scare though, and with the right audience, Hereditary could be a chilling experience. It just left me a bit cold.