Ari Aster’s debut film has crawled under the skins of audiences all over the world by now. Hereditary’s simple, family-in-a-grief-vacuum, approach to genre filmmaking is a studied turn from the norm, a stylish experimental melodrama carefully engineered to avoid traditional scares. Aside from awards buzz for its cast, Hereditary is showing up cracks in the standard Horror format.
After her mum dies, Annie (Toni Collette) buries herself in her work, constructing meticulously detailed miniature houses whilst her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and kids (Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff), try to handle the grief, or lack of it, in their own ways. As disturbing secrets come to light, and a pattern of generational trauma emerges, the family is thrown into a whirlwind of grief and horrifying revelation.
Taking cues from Melodrama and Folk Horror, Aster’s debut manages to camouflage its true nature for most of the run time, without pulling a last act ‘fuck you’ at the audience. The seeds of Aster’s creeping post-Folk are there from the start, but so subtly placed that Hereditary is the first horror of 2018 to demand multiple viewings. Aster has found horror in the simplest, strangest, and most uncomfortable of quandaries, namely; what runs in your family?
Basically, there’s a lot to be said for not spelling everything out. Some of the angrier responses have called out the film for not being more easily accessible. To some it’s a train of crap which departs from the station of common sense and pulls in 2 hours later at total narrative breakdown. And that’s partially true but in the best possible way.
Hereditary is a great horror film exactly because it doesn’t spoon-feed it’s plot or dodge the uncomfortable. Like Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, there’s a desire to build an emotional response in the audience that’s not limited to fear. Hereditary is almost entirely dependent on letting the audience find their own way through, since Aster seems super aware you can’t just show emotion to viewers and expect them to really care. Much like the family at the centre of its madness, the audience will react in different ways to different characters and scares.
Horror is most effective when you can’t see what’s coming and when it sucker punches you in the feels. Hereditary is a surprisingly tender film and that careful tenderness is Aster’s smoking gun. Disorientation and sorrow are the fastest ways to strip an audience’s defences and Hereditary is custom built to get under your skin in a multitude of ways. It’s a horror film which uses grief in the same way other films use jump scares, but without the exploitative after-taste. Aster never takes advantage of our hearts as much as he does our expectations of horror and that’s kinda genius. At the very least, it means the finale feels like a justified emotional crescendo as opposed to the last big fright on a dopey spook-train.
That’s not to say you won’t jump. There are scares in Hereditary which go beyond the usual because of that emotional and technical legwork. The house is so pristine set-up as a horror location that by the end, our familiarity with it works against us in Aster’s big bonkers finale. The characters so well drafted, and performed, it’s tough not to feel for every family member. Colin Stetson’s soundtrack is an amalgam of deranged classic influences and uncomfortable ambient sounds. It’s an avant garde sound perfect for the film without being intrusive; it’s functional and noteworthy but not distractingly so. Pawel Pogorzelski’s (Patchwork) cinematography is another pitch-perfect component which leaves Aster’s debut a frankly gorgeous example of visual storytelling. So many images from Hereditary deserve to be blown up and hung on your wall it’s that easy on the eye, and the more you watch it, the more you see.
The performances are stunning, from literally everyone, and those calls for Colette’s Oscar aren’t unfounded, she delivers a performance of breathtaking power, ensuring Annie will go down as one of the the most complicated “monstrous mothers” in horror history. But don’t let the excitement around Collette fool you into thinking Hereditary is a one-trick pony: its a damn fine piece of film-making, and a truly exciting debut.
Dir. Ari Aster
Stars. Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, Ann Dowd