Film Review: Hereditary

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The acclaimed new horror film from first-time director Ari Aster grips with an emotionally-loaded setup, instilling a sense of dread before taking the viewer on a nightmarish walking-tour of the psycho-supernatural. *May contain spoilers*

“Who will survive and what will be left of them?” Like the infamous tagline for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the marketing of Hereditary suggests an experience to be endured rather than enjoyed - an exercise in colon control. Given the near-universal pre-release buzz from critics and filmmakers, the unsettlingly intense trailer, and the repeated assertion this isn't plain-Jane scary but “the most terrifying film in years” - on a par with The Exorcist - expectations and heart-rates are high from the start. Not for a long time has an audience sat in such hushed anticipation as when the lights dimmed for this film and the title glowered on screen - everyone still and quiet and braced for emotional annihilation.

The spectre of death and sinister forces are evoked from the get-go, the film proceeding with quiet dread. The prologue is provided via the obituary of recently-deceased matriarch Ellen, who we read is mother to Annie (Toni Collette) and grandmother of her two children, son Peter and daughter Charlie. The deep, ominous rumble of Colin Stetson’s score rises, accompanying a shot from inside Annie’s studio of a creepy-looking treehouse. Panning over to a model re-creation of their home, we zoom in on her son’s replica bedroom, which, in a bravura moment, eerily metamorphoses into ‘real life’ as Steve (Gabrielle Byrne) enters the same shot to wake Peter for the funeral. A feeling of doom - a sense that the devil might quite literally be in the detail - continues into the next few scenes, as Annie delivers her eulogy to a host of largely unknown attendees; acknowledging her mother’s “private rituals” and secretive personality in a manner bewildered, sorrowful and, to some extent, relieved.

The film leans on the motif of the model house; the camera composing frames within frames to engender a sense of claustrophobic un-reality and making us interrogate the nature of what we’re seeing. The actual and artificial are blurred through occasionally “stagey” mise-en-scène, and the director’s use of lateral, wide-angle shots to provide a cross-section of the action mirrors the bisected layout of Annie’s self-made models. This recurrent focus on the constructed nature of their environment hints that the characters may be pawns in the dark scheme of some external force. There are clear references to The Shining here, particularly of Jack towering over a replica of The Overlook’s maze as the camera zooms in on his wife and son walking through its labyrinthine passages. Hereditary likewise blurs the line between reality, madness, and the supernatural to cast doubt on the veracity of what is being witnessed.

Aster starts by grounding the film in the messy emotions of intense grief, guilt and mourning, which become even more pronounced when a horrific tragedy in the first act pushes the characters into meltdown. The horror of the unknown gives way to melodrama and familial discord, with Annie’s despair mutating into resentment - surfacing in a tense and disquieting dinner scene - and making us question the universal truth of a mother’s unconditional love. In a stupor of loss, she eventually befriends Joan, a spiritualist who has recently managed to communicate with the dead and who encourages Annie to do the same.

It is around this point that all sense of clammy dread dissipates, and for the most part we are back in familiar horror territory - the film recalls classics such as Don’t Look Now, Rosemary’s Baby and The Witch, as well as Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and Deadly Blessing too. Heads are grasped through bed posts and bodies swarm with ants in illusory dream sequences; séance’s are held and vengeful spirits assail the living, and eventually people levitate while diligently sawing off their own heads. The psychological realism of the first half of the film yields to a grotesque and fantastic tableau which eschews the film’s initial logic. While the imagery is certainly nightmarish, its increasingly exaggerated, Evil Dead-esque presentation can also be amusingly absurd.

Perhaps there is some overarching narrative, psychological or occult knowledge that would unlock a coherent sense of the film’s events. Could this all be a psychodrama direct from Annie’s head, a literal staging of her fears and neuroses? As it is, the film leaves many questions unanswered, its narrative ambiguity undermining its terrifying credibility; the final result being a well-crafted, engaging, but mostly unconvincing horror movie.