Ari Aster’s debut feature horror/drama film has caused quite a stir so far. With such quality horror films that have come out in recent months/years as “A Quiet Place” (2018), “Get Out” (2017) and “The Witch” (2015), to name just a few, it may be safe to say that the calibre revival of the genre is in full swing. It also seems like a long time has passed since we had to rely solely on James Wan (“Insidious” (2010), “The Conjuring” (2013)), horror sequels or classic movies for some kind of decent horror entertainment. “Hereditary” is an impressive and scary film, but not in the way most will assume. Its tricks, twists and general horror content may have been recycled from previous movies, and its inner intelligence and coherence will no longer awe discerning horror/thriller fans that have followed recent movies. Nevertheless, where “Hereditary” really impresses is in the setting-construction, in the unhurried building of the right, creepy atmosphere, in its attention to detail and characterisation, and, of course, it impresses with its top-notch acting, the kind that we probably have not seen in a horror film, maybe even since “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).
The plot’s beginning is that a family is struck by a tragedy: the death of Annie’s mother and Peter and Charlie’s grandmother. The grandmother was a very secretive woman and the initial mystery here is her real personality and what she might have been like in real life. The whole film then revolves around four remaining family members who reside in a big and comfortable house in countryside. Annie, played brilliantly by Toni Collette (“The Sixth Sense” (1999)), is the mother to teenagers Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who builds small replicas of homes and people as her job. Steve, Annie’s husband, is a reasonable and dutiful man, who also proves to be the most sceptical member of the family, and who is played by Gabriel Byrne (“Miller’s Crossing” (1990), “I, Anna” (2012)), who, in turn, is also no stranger to the horror genre. The dynamics of the family, especially after the death of Annie’s mother, is fascinating to watch in the film. There are hints of love in the family, but also tension and frustrations somewhere beneath the surface. Even in scenes where we watch ordinary family conversations about daily activities, there is a feeling that some members of the family are hiding ill-feelings and insecurities towards others.
The opening shot of the film has got to be one of my favourite of this year. The camera moves around a room in Annie and Steve’s house when it stops and zooms into one of the small replica homes that Annie built for her job. We then notice that Steve enters that small replica room and it as though it is real life again. This is an effective opening, hinting at us that what we are about to see we should follow carefully, because nothing could be as we see it and there could be a case of someone else having a grand design on the house and its residents. The first part or hour of the film could be seen in either of the two ways. It can be seen as an incredible slow, even tedious unveiling of the events, with a sense of creepiness around the house, and sporadic, but almost pathetic attempts to scare. The second way to view the first part is the meticulous and admirable construction of the setting, with the story moving forward thought-provocatively and unhurriedly, and with us having all the time in the world to step into this macabre atmosphere, intuitively sensing the story’s inner layers while we slowly start to care for its characters. Fortunately, it is the second way to view this first part which prevails. The setting could not have been presented creepier, evoking both a haunted house scenario and a psychological deterioration case. Annie’s daughter starts to display a strange behaviour, there are paranormal happenings in the house and the tension between family members grows.
What distinguishes this horror from many others is, definitely, its acting. Toni Collette does an unbelievably great job portraying Annie. Her character is filled with fears, guilt and irrational thoughts. In some scenes, Annie seems a rational, strict mother who loves her job and her family, and in another scene we may see Annie as a broken and hysterical woman who loses control over reality and the events in her life. This transformation is as fascinating to watch as it is painful. The nice addition to this film is also Ann Dowd (“The Handmaid’s Tale” (2017)), who plays Joan, a woman whom Annie “befriends” during one of her group therapy meetings. Together with Charlie’s unexplained behaviour, the eeriness of this personality could not be easily forgotten.
There is this realisation that you cannot really do something with a horror movie script that has not been previously attempted before. There is a feeling that to produce a truly original horror is like trying to turn water into wine. There is some truth in it, but many horror films still appear to go for excessiveness, not satisfied that they are already scaring their audience, and many then try to incorporate too many horror elements (sometimes simultaneously) into the film. “Hereditary” is no different, and the problem lies in the film’s second half. If the first part of the film was almost half-sleepy, the second half is waking up, and in the last twenty minutes of film there is a full awakening where too much is packed. The issue is that, apart from the theme of a tragedy affecting the family (from which there is no escape down the generations), there is a topic of a mental illness introduced (Annie is sometimes sleep-walking and her brother suffered from schizophrenia), and the most prominent theme then becomes the supernatural and the ghosts descending on the household. With all this horror compilation, “Hereditary” just tries to have its cake and eat it too, and it almost succeeds. The problem is that “Hereditary” is still torn in different directions, not quite knowing whether it should focus on a family drama and the tragedy/mental illness, a ghost story with a medium at the centre (as is the case in “The Conjuring”, for example) or on pagan rituals and the cult obsessions. Even though the film becomes really scary at the end, for some it may be too much coming too late. In the last twenty minutes, the film throws its subtlety away, showing us all, and the result would have been effective overall if we also did know that it was what the film ultimately suggested that really produced this delicious/macabre sense of mystery, unease and wonder. Also, while we should not expect characters in a horror movie to act rationally, some actions of the characters in “Hereditary” are very surprising, such as Peter’s dangerous attempt to save his sister’s life when she eats a cake containing nuts (his sister has a nut allergy).
What the audience finds out at the end of the film is that there was a special “higher” plan for the family and Peter, having a body of a male, was the primary target. Evoking in some sense both “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “The Wicker Man” (1973), “Hereditary” proves to be both more intelligent and coherent than we originally thought, urging us to re-watch it to make connections between apparently strange behaviours of some characters. However, in its twist and overall design, it is neither too clever nor original, and the problem may be that it tried to incorporate successfully both: a ghost world and a cult of some living people also who are after the family and want to appease their hell deity (Annie mother’s conspiracy is still working). The result then is slightly underwhelming, and the effect which is a bit too unbelievable, even by the standards of a horror film.
For a debut, “Hereditary” is an outstanding achievement in the horror genre which shocks marvellously with its sporadic outrageous displays and awes with its first-class, exemplary acting. Unlike some other reviewers/critics, I would not call it a classic, but, perhaps, we should let time be a judge of that. The film’s first part is disturbingly eerie and very unsettling, while, near the end, the film does become quite scary and complicated. The film may be too long and its concepts lack originality, for example, there is a clear “Rosemary’s Baby” ending to the film. However, the overall execution of the film is so masterful, and the setting and the atmosphere are so eerie, haunting and meticulously created, that the cinematic experience becomes quite unforgettable. 8/10