Thu, 28 Jun 2018
Running time 2hr 7min
AT Hereditary’s commencement, we are drawn ominously into one of the creepy dolls houses that artist Annie (Toni Collette) puts together for a living. As Colin Stetson’s oppressive score locks us into our seats, the dolls house is transformed into the bedroom of Peter (Alex Wolff), Annie’s teenage son; it’s the morning of his grandmother’s funeral, and he and his sickly sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), are being ushered along by their elders. It’s a rare film whose vision gets under your skin from the very first shot, yet Hereditary’s mission statement is both blunt and insidious – our protagonists are hemmed in by forces beyond their comprehension, puppets made flesh in a twisted domestic diorama. What unfolds over the next two hours is bound to polarise, provoke and, yes, sicken – but, love it or hate it, you’ll never quite relieve yourself of the movie’s haunting depths.
Comparisons with The Exorcist have proven the showpiece of Hereditary’s marketing campaign, yet it’s as erroneous a selling point as it is a bold one. Ari Aster’s debut feature is, for my money, this generation’s Don’t Look Now. Like Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 masterpiece, the film is a horror flick only IN PRACTICE – though supernatural elements are present throughout, it actually BECOMES a balls-to-the-wall screamie relatively late into the second act, otherwise functioning as a bleakly brilliant theatre of grief, guilt and despair. Annie, it transpires, had a fraught, traumatic relationship with her mother; her dolls house-building doubles as an eccentric therapy, allowing her to recreate harrowing scenes from her past. This (already tragic) hobby takes a particularly dark turn after an unspeakable catastrophe strikes; soon, Annie’s anguish invites otherworldly powers into the family home, with terrifying consequences.
The twists and convolutions of Hereditary’s plot could easily have plunged the production into James Wan-esque farce, yet its atmospheric savvy is unlike anything else in contemporary horror cinema – when it veers into blatant paranormal territory, we wholly accept the shift, precisely because of the sheer uncanniness of the whole thing. The film exists in a state of perpetual insomnia, as night turns seamlessly to day and day gives way to sudden, tyrannical darkness. Wolff, Shapiro and Collette lay on expressionistic, quintessentially cinematic performances; even prior to their being thrust into hell, you get the sense these damaged souls have very little to say to one another – Collette’s, in particular, is a hypnotic portrait of a doomed woman, resigned to delirium in a world in which she finds no place for herself. This makes for a tantalising counterpart to Gabriel Byrne’s more conventional performance as paterfamilias Steve, a composed man who, it initially seems, is endeavouring to guide his clan through tortuous circumstances, but who, it becomes gradually apparent, is merely descending into madness on his own terms.
Hereditary’s achievement is rendered all the more astonishing in the face of its trading in horror clichés (we’re talking seances, ghosts and grave-robbing here). All the great genre films of the past decade have either put a new spin on old material (Oculus, The Babadook) or steered as far clear of the family recipe as possible (Get Out, The Witch) – until now, there simply WAS no compromise, no in-between. Arguably, Aster takes neither of these paths well-trod; rather, he arms the project with dread, tension and an unmistakable air of loss. The game plan works out beautifully. This is a uniquely unsettling picture – nothing could prepare even hardened horror fans for some of its grislier sequences, and it’s an emotionally testing, luxuriously- paced watch at the best of times. But stick with Hereditary, and you might just find gold.