What constitutes a great horror film? What is it about the genre that has been drawing audiences since the beginnings of celluloid storytelling? These questions are at the forefront after experiencing the abject terror of a movie like ‘Hereditary’, because it expertly utilizes well established tropes as well as challenges the viewer as to the very nature of fear. The fact that this is the first(?!) feature film written and directed by Ari Aster belies the reality of an expertly crafted piece of dramatic horror.
‘Hereditary’ is an experience best left to carefully unfold on its’ own, as it takes the viewer to both expected and unexpected places. The film opens wide on a cluttered workshop of what appears to be dollhouses and dioramas. The camera closes tight on a cross-section of a house, finally resting on a bedroom, then seamlessly integrates from a model to an actual room, complete with a sleeping boy, who wakes to ready for a funeral. This initial scene is marked by its languid, drawn-out, dread-soaked presentation, which pervades across the entirety of the film’s runtime. This is not to say that there are no moments of levity and absurdity going forward, but everything is tempered by this overall feeling of being trapped.
In this case, the characters, and the audience by extension, are imprisoned by a culture of familial discord. Most of the activity in the film is limited to this family home, a design feat in itself, at once modern, rustic, and gothic, with what appears to be a freshly constructed tree-house, all residing on a large piece of isolated land in the countryside. The narrative begins with the funeral service for main character Annie’s mother. It becomes readily apparent that she had a relationship with her that was strained at best, abusive at worst. As the movie unfolds, the nuanced screenplay drops in strange tidbits about said relationship, much of it through Annie’s art as a miniaturist, hence the dioramas in the workshop.
‘Hereditary’ succeeds because of its amazing, performances. Toni Collette does her career best work as Annie, a woman marred by tragedy, who is woefully unhinged, but still hopeful for connection. She is supported by a subdued Gabriel Byrne as her husband Steve, a role that on its surface may seem aloof, but acts as a true audience surrogate, helpless and confused by what is going on here. Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff, as her children Charlie and Peter, are truly astounding in their respective portrayals of an introverted, almost feral, creative force, and a teenage boy doing everything he can to fit in despite crushing despair, but only doing so on a basic level.
Aster and the groundbreaking production company, A24 (‘Moonlight’, ‘The Witch’) deserve a lot of credit for crafting a piece that can sit next to the best the genre has to offer. Aster has created a bleak vision of a family drama tinged by the haunted trappings of the supernatural via his intense attention to visual and aural detail (a literal pulse pounding score), a careening series of events, and an ability to coax incredibly layered performances out of his small acting crew. If there is any hesitation to ‘enjoyment’ of such an expertly crafted piece of horror, it’s that it’s an expertly crafted piece of horror, one that leaves the viewer gasping and questioning as to why subject oneself to it in the first place . . .
Written & Directed By: Ari Aster
Running Time: 127 min.
* * * ½ (out of 4 stars) -OR- A-