Sundance London 2018: Hereditary Review
"The scariest film ever" "A new generation's The Exorcist” - so go some of the platitudes being laid at the feet of Ari Aster's debut feature, Hereditary. In a sense it's a relief that the film doesn't live up to the hype because it at least gives Aster room to manoeuvre for subsequent films. Which isn't to say his first effort is bad by any means, it is helmed by a director with a clear vision of what he wants to say coupled with the ability to deliver the vast majority of it.
Led by a fantastic performance from Toni Collette, the opening shot slowly pulls us into a miniaturised model home of the Graham family on the day of her mother's burial. She plays Annie, married to husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and parent to elder son Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro). Unsure how to process the passing of her mother she becomes obsessed with her new art project that seems to resemble passages of her life re-constructed using disturbing dollhouse figurines.
The line of what to say and what to avoid starts early in Hereditary as the experience is all in the unravelling of the story. Suffice to say there has been enough tragedy on Annie's side of the family to last a number of lifetimes. Something rotten is decaying inside the depths of this bloodline and it isn't just the decapitated head of a pigeon sitting in Charlie's room that smells off.
Aster manages to build a near constant atmosphere of dread that rarely dissipates from the edges of the frame. A low rumbling thrum occasionally breaks out into clearer, more sinister chords before retreating back into the shadows. Former Arcade Fire saxophonist Colin Stetson's score is at times disorientating and always effectively used to tighten the tension whenever required.
As with any good horror film the terror is developed from deep within the souls of the characters rather than solely relying on external forces. One brutal sequence in particular acts as the trigger point to peel open wounds that have been festering away for years to create the breeding ground for a particularly nasty infection. It's here that Alex Wolff's performance comes to the fore with Peter slowly turned into a gibbering shell of a boy.
There are problems with Aster's approach that prevent it from becoming the modern-day horror classic it has been heralded as. While Aster generates plenty of chills few last long enough to be developed into full blown scares, quickly reverting back to a slow burn that never fully ignites. There are no moments that tip you into the pit of darkness, where your brain loses complete confidence in reality and the images it is attempting to process, before panic places its icy grip around your throat. Horror is at its greatest when it feels utterly surreal and Hereditary never fully crosses over to embrace the fear of the unknown.
The two hour plus run time doesn't help in that respect and trimming off around 20 minutes of fat would've helped further intensify a narrative that takes its cues from films such as Don't Look Now and Rosemary's Baby. Aster's resolution to the Graham's situation is also less than satisfying, managing to unravel most of the mystery through awkward exposition and a sudden lack of subtlety that belies much of what comes before.
Collette's powerful performance sees her realise a character unable to bear the burden of a broken relationship with her family and a deeply fractured bond with her mother, her actions becoming more frantic by the scene. There is enough horror shown through her own descending emotions without taking into account everything going on around her. She takes complete ownership of the film and whether it’s Collette's magnetic presence that sticks, or you are scared out of your wits, Hereditary is a film that lingers for some time.
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