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I think my mother put a curse on us.

Movie

Hereditary
(2018)

 

Well, the Hereditary trailer’s a very fine trailer, there’s no doubt about that. The movie as a whole? Ari Aster’s debut follows in the line of a number of recent lauded-to-the-heavens (or hells) horror movies that haven’t quite lived up to their hype (The Babadook, for example). In Hereditary‘s case, there’s no doubting Ari Aster’s talent as a director. Instead, I’d question his aptitude for horror.

Or rather, his aptitude for horror when it’s overtly identifiable as such. Because, when Hereditary is focussing on a dysfunctional family with unsettling, possibly uncanny or even supernatural elements percolating around the edges of the frame, it’s tremendously effective; the phrase “glacial pacing” seems to have been designed with Aster in mind.

Conversely, when it decides to double down on this being a full-blown horror movie, it starts to fall apart, alternately betraying itself as predictable or ridiculous, and has to rely on Aster the director provocatively kindling dread and disturbance as a counterbalance to the misjudged extremities of his own screenplay.

Even in the early scenes, however, there’s a feeling Aster is too in thrall to an identifiable horror pedigree. The picture’s sound design is often highly impressive, particularly in its assembly of offscreen sounds one can’t quite contextualise, or those all-important tongue clicks as punctuation points. But there’s also an over-reliance on an ominously persistent heartbeat effect that ends up feeling a little cheap, so pervasive is it. I began trying to envision the scenes without this amped-up atmosphere, half-wondering if they wouldn’t have been the more effective for it.

That may be telling. Aster told Empire magazine “I never really wanted to be a horror director; there’s a part of me that resists it“. I can see that, as the movie’s standout scenes don’t require the genre bracket for their success. Both focus on Toni Collette’s Annie Graham, gradually unravelling in the wake of the death of the mother she became estranged from, and then, in quick succession, the daughter (Milly Shapiro’s Charlie) who has been horrifically and bizarrely killed in an auto accident (not since Michael Caine in The Hand has the loss of body mass wavered so strongly between shock and unintentional hilarity; while it’s surely the case that the director intended the picture to carry a darkly humorous streak – I’ve seen it said he finds The Shining very funny, and rightly so – I’m not sure that was his objective in that scene).

Collette’s performance, powerhouse and bowdlerising all in her way, is the glue that holds Hereditary together, at least until she’s no longer present enough to insulate it. We observe Annie’s retreat into a controllable world of miniatures from the first, one also providing clues to there being something terribly wrong with the family (what kind of self-deluded offspring doesn’t think it’s horrendously weird to make a model of gran baring her teat to suckle her grandchild… although, what kind of self-denying husband – Gabriel Byrne’s Steve – doesn’t draw the considerable line at a diorama of their decapitated daughter?)

The first scene that really made me take notice was Annie visiting the bereavement support group, where she goes from wishing to avoid speaking to unleashing a torrent of astonishing and shocking admissions – all of which are far more effective than Aster subsequently deciding to show the astonishing and shocking, in order to up the ante. On the one hand, it’s a breathless gasp of exposition that could be argued as ungainly, but on the other, Collette’s delivery renders the monologue entirely compelling, and its unwholesome nature and the stunned reactions of the group also make it rather funny.

Later, we’re treated to another monologue from Annie, in what may be the scene of the movie, featuring as it does and uncomfortably silent evening meal (prepared by Steve, who has just borne witness to Annie’s carnage-in-miniature depiction of Charlie’s demise). It’s broken by firstborn Peter (Alex Wolff of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) asking mom how she is. The suppressed vitriol spewing forth is another tour de force from Collette, and Wolff’s stunned response is, in its own way, just as powerful.

These domestic tribulations are entirely riveting, and one can readily see Steve’s desire to avoid facing ideas that are just that bit too far-fetched, even to the extent that they will be the death of him (at an early stage I wondered if he might be in on it, owing to his curiously keyed “Already?” reaction to the news of the desecrated grave).

Certainly, knowing Annie was poised to set his family alight during a somnambulant episode must have taken its toll. Nevertheless, one can’t help but find certain structural elements rather unlikely. Sure, Annie is in denial, as much as Steve in her own way, but her lack of curiosity felt a little… Well, all her mother’s handy photo albums lying waiting to show exactly what she was up to when she needed a clue. A good thing for the story she didn’t feel curious beforehand.

More damaging is a growing sense of over-familiarity regarding the course Aster charts. He has cited Rosemary’s Baby as an influence, and that’s very evident. But one can also see other instances of the innocent dupe ending up a sacrifice (or vassal), such as The Wicker Man, and its more recent part-homage Kill List. Even The Witch, from the same producer. I was more convinced of Aster’s credentials when he was merely suggestive, prior to laying it on with a trowel. Once the implied becomes literal, so the thematic content, be it inter-generational familial abuse or latent sociopathy (the demon child sub-genre), loses some of its edge.

The final act felt all too predictable, in going for OTT moments rather than tonally appropriate ones (I say that, but US audiences obviously felt short changed of such obvious scares, giving it a D+ grade). In succession, there’s Steve’s immolation, Annie running along ceilings and gruesomely garrotting herself, Peter jumping out of a window in the spirit of The Exorcist before reanimating as Paimon/Charlie, various naked old cultees milling about in corners of rooms and on the grounds, and not-so-friendly-after-all spiritualist Joan – Ann Dowd: I didn’t recall her spoilered presence in the trailer, but there are signs pointing to her as a bad ’un from her first scene – explaining exactly what has just happened for any joes not paying attention (which looked as if it had been dubbed in post).

The failings of the climax underline the merits of the less-is-more approach. Anyone can effectively prey on fears of being alone in bed in the dark at night and seeing things in the darkness; it’s the scenes in the bright open spaces of the school that impress. The same is true of the too-slick supernatural apports (the spirit writing, drawing and glass moving all immediately scream “effect”); Aster’s on firmer ground when calling on a simple image (a reflection of a face in a cabinet, the eerie lighting effect of a “spirit” on the move).

Mark Kermode was irritated by the use of “A new generation’s The Exorcist” to describe Hereditary, not because he didn’t think it was good (he hadn’t seen it at that point), but because comparisons to that picture are rarely on point. He seemed to be invoking content rather than resonance in is his little rant, but I took the comparison wholly in the latter sense.

And on that level, I don’t think it can hold a candle. I’m a fairly easy dupe for scary scenes in movies, so I tend to look for something a bit more impactful as a sign of lasting quality. Hereditary isn’t nearly as unnerving as William Friedkin’s picture because ultimately, it diffuses its dread. The performances are uniformly excellent, Aster’s direction highly impressive, but in the end the picture feels like it has emptied a bag of familiar tropes over its subtler ideas, diluting its potential in the process.

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