Hereditary breaks one of the cardinal rules of horror, upending what until this point lived up to its hype.
Immediately following the death of her mother who was apparently involved in all sorts of creepy, an ashen Annie (Toni Collette) returns to her big, creepy house, attic intact, with her pallid husband (Gabriel Byrne) and her children, one half of whom is supremely unsettling, played by Alex Wolff and an excellent, dramatically underused Milly Shapiro. In between constructing her notably life-like miniatures, it soon becomes clear to Annie that Grandmother-dear has left an indelible mark on her family.
Let’s start off with what’s good about Hereditary – it’s production design, some of the best thereof seen in any horror of late. Commencing with an unnerving close-up of a miniature house soon to seamlessly transform into a life-sized bedroom, the effect resonates throughout a film which cleverly deploys that appreciably and for the better part indiscernible. Alternately real and fantastical, Hereditary, but for the minority of instances which are very obvious, keeps you guessing throughout.
Collette is reliably good as the matriarch forced to reckon with unconventional family dramas, while Byrne, ostensibly playing the character (and one of) through whom the audience’s bewilderment and angst is traditionally reflected, is wasted on a stolid, one-note role. Fast-rising star Ann Dowd brings a lot to Hereditary, which notably emanates with inspiration from classics not unlike Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man. Containing two extremely blatant homages to The Exorcist, first-time feature Director and Writer Ari Aster is evidently seeking to emulate facets of Friedkin’s triumph and horror-benchmark, though stumbles on one of those many pillars which still renders that shocker so endearing.
There is a reason filmmakers save the best and brightest scares for the final act, or even later in the movie. A sense of anticipation and escalating tension crucial to any consummate horror fix, having things go from bad to worse to culminate in some fulcrum of morbid ghastliness is something the good fright-fests and even many of the bad ones do. Hereditary does not.
There are several to be sure, but none so memorable as that which it expends in it’s first act and barely a quarter of the way in. What happens, well, it’s something you’re not going to forget anytime soon. Stupefyingly horrific and agonisingly harrowing, what occurs, as well as that immediately following it, draws magnificently on not only our fear of the macabre but on our heightened sense of here very extreme, ensuing social anxiety central to some of the best and most searing scares.
I’m really selling it, and it is to be sure gruesomely creative. The problem however persists that you know after seeing this that you’re not going to see anything nearly as shocking for the next dreary 90 minutes and, depending on what type of films you’re into, probably not anything so squeamish this whole year.
This, converse, to it’s singular impact, creates a numbing feeling that persists throughout Hereditary which cannot maintain it’s mood or sense of foreboding. You’ve already seen the worst thing you’re going to see and with the stakes having peaked and subsided so dramatically so early all which follows, however hard they try, is just going to get easier to filter. Had this or it’s ilk been evinced at a later stage, so much of the second and third act, mood-driven frights would have carried that much more resonance yet otherwise pale sheepishly in comparison as events consequently take a turn to the dullish and recurringly familiar, staple horror tropes.
Problematic more still is Wolff’s presence. Not up to the calibre of his co-stars, so many of the scares and much of the narrative rests on his miscast shoulders. In both his manner and reactions Wolff is notably neither as consuming nor unnerving as his surrounds or any of those circling proceedings trying their best with a series of waveringly shocking if heavily uneven missteps.
Hereditary is in cinemas now