Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro
Plot: On the weeks following her mother’s death, Annie Graham (Collette) and her family try to grieve a woman they never truly loved.
When the majority of cinema releases this year involve sequels or parts of existing franchises, there appears to be only one genre that still has originality: horror. While the genre has its fair share of shoddy sequels (Friday the 13th, Wrong Turn, Saw), and The Conjuring is piling up its own Marvel-esque franchise, there are also some cracking original ideas in the pot. Some of the most exciting movies in previous years (The Babadook, A Quiet Place, Get Out), were original horror movie ideas, the genre seemingly becoming a place where creativity thrives. Hereditary is yet another example of horror being the most exciting corner of cinema right now.
It is not surprising in all honesty, because horror’s effectiveness prospers from the unknown. Hereditary’s strength is that, if you are lucky enough to escape spoilers, you spend most of the viewing having no idea what is going on. Aster’s direction is superb, seeing as he conjures up that eerie atmosphere without giving us anything to be afraid of yet. The family are grieving the death of their reclusive grandmother, the narrative heavily hinting that she wasn’t the most likeable woman. The family are clearly sheltering an unhealthy amount of secrets and Hereditary builds its tone by spending long, unbroken silences bearing down on each family member. It wouldn’t quite be a spoiler to admit that Hereditary isn’t as completely original as something as ground-breaking as Get Out or It Follows, borrowing most of its story from other films of the genre. However, what Aster does with the material is zoom out and focus on beats other than the scares. Instead of filling his movie with stereotypical caricatures as other horrors have done, Aster creates a handful of three-dimensional, original characters. There are lengthy, patience-testing segments where the scares are put on hold and we develop these people over time. Toni Collette is outstanding as the mother grieving impossible circumstances, but reacting in odd and unusual ways. Alex Wolff takes the moody teenager role and runs with it, allowed some fantastic scenes that really puts him on the map as an actor. Gabriel Byrne, despite being the biggest name here, is slightly over-shadowed, mainly because his character’s strength comes from the hollowness. He is the absent father figure, so prominent in horror tales, but made all the more interesting, because he is trying his hardest to be present. He solves problems the way he believes best, offering quick fixes to the problems that arise in this broken family unit, but ending up a fairly useless figure, almost unintentionally antagonistic by the end. It’s a great character, but one that doesn’t quite give Byrne anything satisfyingly meaty to do. There are times when the real star of the show is Aster’s direction. He has a great way of finding more and more unusual angles to film vital moments from. The most shocking twists are made all the more surprising, because the drama unfolds as Aster cuts to a close-up of a character’s face, telling the drama through their reactions. Another trick he does is have his camera constantly shift and crawl around the long household corridors. While a family member reacts to an emotional shock, Aster turns the shot to the characters on the peripherals, highlighting the thought of how layered a family unit is. So much happens in the space of a single moment.
Yes, Hereditary’s strength is that it focuses more on just the horror. However, arguably it is also its downfall. People hanging on the claims that Hereditary is the scariest horror yet may be dissuaded by the fact that it spends most of its middle act, ignoring the fact it is supposed to be spooky. It becomes a slow-burning drama about family trying to survive the worst life can throw at it. But when it needs to be terrifying, it succeeds with resounding effect. Perhaps the length eventually works for the movie, as it gifts the final twenty minutes – the quiet pace exploding into that frightening experience you were promised – with the benefits of such a tense build-up. Arguably, the build-up is scarier than the actual scares. But isn’t that what horror is about? I have seen too many movies squanders its perfect build-up with an absence of true terror. Hereditary does not make that mistake. The total unknown of what is about to happen, paired with this skin-crawling build-up, makes for a superb experience. It is the lingering figures in the corner of the frame, the sudden moments of terror-mongering… Hereditary will make you wait for it, but when the chills come, you will not be disappointed.
Final Verdict: Aster isn’t just making a great horror, but a strong character piece too. Arguably over-long, but Aster’s vision is definitely achieved.