The scariest movie everrrrrrrr! No. You’ll actually cack your pants! No. Five star reviews are getting banded about wilier than nilly for Ari Aster’s debut feature, Hereditary, and although it comes as no surprise, I don’t think it’s fully justified. It’s certainly a film of three acts, each of which has it’s own merits, but for me they didn’t particularly jell together all that seamlessly.
The film starts out pretty orthodox; a death in the family. This paves the way for explorations of grief and turmoil both in individuals and as a family unit. Annie (Toni Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) are parents to teenager Peter (Alex Wolff) and his younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Steve, the seemingly normal one of the family, attempts to steer the clan through their time of bereavement whilst his kin deal with it in their own, strange ways. You might say this shared oddness was *cue ominous music* hereditary.
It was this immediate lack of subtlety that almost put me off from the get go. There’s a few genre clichés pop up and it’s a little slow to get going. Not that I have issues with slow, tense build ups, but it was a little heavy on the slow and somewhat lacking in tension to begin with. Technical nous tickles the curiosity with some interesting camera and editing work so that kept me going. It wasn’t until the turning point of the first act when you’re thrust into the second at break neck speed that I was fully gripped. That’s when the film really comes into its own, producing a great feeling of unease and a genuinely disconcerting sense of dread.
Untethering from familiar horror territory and migrating into the realms of psychological chicanery lets the film and the cast shine. Collette in particular confidently takes the reins as the matriarch of all the madness. Talking of nightmares and sleep walking she begins losing control of the situation. Pair this with an excessive fervor to remain in control and you start to understand the nervous mood the film invokes.
As incidents within the family increase, Annie withdraws and spends more time in her studio crafting pieces for her art exhibition. What starts out as a depiction of family life shown through figurines in a dollhouse, quickly dissolves into skewed interpretations of real life events and Annie’s nightmares. These alarming dioramas are the physical manifestation of Annie’s mental chaos – control escaping vs. the desire for control. Steve is a mere bystander for the whole process and even his relaxed demeanor starts to show cracks.
Astute guidance of the tension by Aster formulates a palpable atmosphere. Some truly disturbing imagery will leave you checking the corners of the room before you go to sleep and the unsettling score underpinning everything is nerve grinding. What I liked above all else is that the film doesn’t rely on jump scares. There’s a couple, of course, but the majority of the ‘horror’ is harboured in your own subconscious purely because you’re not entirely sure what the hell is going on. But as the film moves into the concluding part it loses its way.
Some of the biggest frights in the film are born in the finale but they tend to come from terror inducing shots instead of carefully architectured set pieces to mess with your psyche. Unfortunately, this dip at the end means that all the hard work and attentive direction is undone, albeit not completely, by taking a rather easy way out of the plot.
Maybe it feels like I’ve slated the film a bit but that’s because there’s too much hype. In a way it did the film a favour. I’m always skeptical of modern horrors and so the buzz surrounding it made me think that it was going to be distinctly average. It’s absolutely not. It’s a bold debut and there are real flashes of interesting filmmaking but it could do with some refining. Condensing, for one, would help, as well as steering away from overused genre tactics. It’s certainly one of the better horror films I’ve seen in recent years and I think it’s solid enough to withstand further viewing but it’s not perfect.