Hereditary was my most anticipated film of the year, from the hyped reviews coming out to the general idea of a horror film that deals with a messed up nuclear family. I’m happy to say this is my favourite film of the year so far that satisfies the same audience that appreciated 'The Witch' or 'The Wailing', which incidentally was my favourite film of 2016. This is not for those looking for cheap scares and immediate satisfaction, it’s a film that burrows deep into your skull and forces the viewer to relive in order to make sense of what just went down.
Director Ari Aster made a short film, 'The Strange Thing About the Johnsons', that also explored family relations and a father's incestuous relationship with his son. The horror in this example was much more psychological and unsettling in the reactions of the characters and how they handle difficult situations, elements that he brings to 'Hereditary'. His other short, 'Beau', is not as layered, but you can see how he manages to create atmosphere by keeping important information hidden and the anxiety of not knowing or seeing. He mentions in interviews that he was taking influence from back to old school horror such as 'Don’t Look Now' and 'Rosemary’s Baby', the latter of which is almost directly referenced and very influential.
It’s hard to describe the plot without spoiling anything, but essentially Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother has passed away, a woman who is described posthumously as manipulative and abusive. While dealing with her loss, she also struggles to maintain a healthy relationship with her own children, son Peter (Alex Wolff) and distant, strange daughter Charlie (Molly Shapiro). Annie can’t deal with grief or find peace in the tragedies that befall her. At a counselling session, she is accosted by Joan (Ann Dowd) who manages to speak to her dead grandson through a seance. Annie brings the same technique into her house and things begin to go awry.
The acting on the whole is fantastic, particularly from Toni Collette and Alex Wolff. In a horror film, I didn’t expect the most disturbing thing to be an argument between a mother and child at a family dinner, but there is a scene that encapsulates every time one’s parent has been unstoppably angry and there’s nothing to do but sit and endure a vicious scolding. In fact, most of the best scenes revolve around the two. The editing and the cinematography are also standout, creating a sense of discomfort from the very beginning; for example, at the very beginning the camera pans to a model house that Annie has created only to dolly into the room of the house where the real characters are. It’s a fantastic shot that seems innocuous at first, but it’s a very sneaky set up for the rest of the story. Quick cuts to seemingly random shots are disorientating and the use of natural light, coupled with the often cold grading, makes the house feel realistically bleak and time becomes abstract.
It’s not an imperfect film by any means; the runtime is challenging and what would be psychological horror gives way to a different sub-genre that seems to manifest too quickly, although Aster does well to plant seeds throughout the film that are all paid off by its ending. Saving maximum insanity for the last act is tricky for a genre where many tropes and formulas are rehashed in the mainstream market, but I don’t think the focus of the film is to jump out the shadows and give you an adrenaline rush. I went into the cinema expecting a more or less mainstream genre with a little twist, but in the end I saw Hereditary as a family drama about grief and what secrets, confessions and resentments can come to light in the face of death.
- Xiao Tang