Hereditary is a grand and masterfully composed horror in the same league as The Shining. This is a remarkable achievement for a feature film debut from writer-director Ari Aster, who grew up on horror films. While a debut for Aster on a modest $10 million budget, this horror drama has the earmarks of a much more accomplished and experienced director. The story follows a grieving family following the passing of a matriarch, whose dark secrets emerge during the course of some tragic and disturbing occurrences. While it owns its space, you could describe it as a blend of The House of Sand and Fog, Rosemary’s Baby and The Babadook.
It’s similar to The House of Sand and Fog in the way it leverages dark and intense domestic drama. Focusing on the alienation and devastation of the core family unit, several key performances drive the intense, brooding and harrowing drama home. Then, while not as maternal, it parallels The Babadook in the way psychological drama compels the lead into madness in a brilliantly unleashed performance from Toni Collette. Hereditary also tips the hat to Rosemary’s Baby with an equally eerie and dread-filled tone, its occult appetite and several echoes. Playing off overwhelming grief, family secrets, repressed anger, the occult and the dissolution of a home – it’s a swirling dark and intense piece of horror cinema.
The level of performance is strong, carried through by an arguably career best performance from Collette, who is surprisingly well-suited to the genre and deserving of great recognition for her efforts. Conveying the heartache and turmoil of a woman afflicted by grief and plunging headlong into a blackened chasm of psychosis, she manages to herd many distinct elements of her performance into something both powerfully emotional and terrifying.
“…okay, but what happens if fire wants to play with you?”
A stoic Gabriel Byrne chimes in as a level-headed yet numb husband, the sort of take you’d expect from a retired exorcist. Alex Wolff has a controlled and angst-filled teenage vacancy about him, while Milly Shapiro’s introverted performance and unnerving doll-like features are iconic and will echo long after the credits roll. Ann Dowd also shines, contributing the kind of persuasive performance one would expect from Kathy Bates.
Hereditary works because it’s a strong drama, ratcheting up the tension before swathing itself in a cloak of horror. The cinematography is bold and sweeping with artistic flourishes, executing and reinforcing Aster’s vision with finesse. Darkly majestic and constantly destabilising, it meshes quite intriguingly with the edit through curious graphic matches and smart transitions.
The soundtrack is layered, unsettling and just as fascinating… almost to the point of distraction, at times sounding like a heartbeat from within the confines of amniotic fluid and using some clever wraparounds. The visual effects are subtle, resourceful and used with restraint. Stained glass windows and doll houses make a wonderful refresh from typical horror elements and Aster is fluent in the genre.
Hereditary does spiral a bit out of control towards the end as it tries to culminate in a conclusion worthy of its long gestation. In a late shock and awe sprint to the finish, it cuts loose from the carefully calibrated approach toward a horror frenzy, adopting an all-out final flourish, which while unsettling seems rather treacherous within the context of the picture as a whole. Forgoing the same thoughtful and considered approach, it ramps things up with gusto as if being gathered by a whirlwind.
While the rest of the film is quite slow-moving, it’s only fitting, giving the viewer time to immerse oneself in the grand horror narrative and far-reaching subtext, much like The Shining.
Late-in-the-game flaws aside, this an impressive achievement… a masterpiece even, which demonstrates great forethought, insight and firm direction… the kind of film that could be unpacked and studied at a tertiary level.
Horror fans will be impressed, and while it’s drawn out and more on the art house side of horror, most will agree that it is one of those films that will haunt you for days. While Collette’s full range performance is worth seeing – Hereditary is a dark, unsettling and perilsome psychological horror, which is not suitable for sensitive viewers.
The bottom line: Dreadful
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