By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Hereditary is both a harrowing drama about the burden of grief, and an ode to the classic horror film, even if it stumbles a little in the transition between.
After the death of her mother, Annie (Toni Collette) is forced to come to terms with unspeakable grief, as well as a dark and sinister force that begins to haunt both her and her already dysfunctional family.
Incredibly, this is director Ari Aster’s debut film, and it’s a film that will be spoken about for years to come. It’s primarily a horror film with an unspeakable evil that simply never lets up. There’s almost no time to come up for air here.
From the get-go, Hereditary throws you into a seemingly bottomless pit of dread and melancholia with a funeral scene which is as awkward as it is creepy, especially when unstable mother Annie delivers a eulogy about how unliked and difficult her estranged mother actually was.
Annie is a character that bears a burden of grief like no other. A string of tragedies that have haunted her since childhood cut her off from the real world, and in order to cope, she retreats into herself and her studio where she meticulously crafts miniature models of her old family home, and the people in it – a coping mechanism that gives her the control that she that she craves in real life.
Collette’s performance erupts with emotional realism. After yet another tragedy, Annie breaks, and the actress goes down with her. There’s a particular scene that is so abysmally horrifying and tragic that her deafening wails made me want to curl up in a fetal position on the cinema floor. It’s without a doubt, a career best performance from the Australian actress who has honestly never really played a bad role. From cult classic Muriel’s Wedding to The Sixth Sense, Toni Collette has reigned supreme on more than one occasion, she even earned an Oscar nomination for the latter, but Hereditary hands down wins this performance race.
The husband Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne, attempts to be the glue that holds the family together, but is essentially the shoddy kind of glue to which nothing really sticks. Alex Wolff is unbelievable as the troubled son and stoner Peter who is gradually drawn deeper into the supernatural mess which is, in part, created by his special needs sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro).
Charlie will no doubt go down in horror history as one of the great scary children, right up there with The Shining’s Daniel and The Exorcist’s Regan. Her incessant tongue clicking is the ticking for the inevitable bomb that is the film’s third act, and that, combined with the low frequency hums and human like cries of Colin Stetson’s Lynchian score make the descent into madness all the more terrifying. Indie film distributor A24 were measuring heart rates of audience members when the film first premiered and its no doubt that the brilliant use of sound and score contributed something to that.
As chaos ensues and Annie is persuaded into taking part in a seance with suspicious new friend Joan, played by the always villainous Anne Dowd (The Leftovers, The Handmaid’s Tale), the film takes a more supernatural turn. What starts off as a masterful exercise in grief soon turns into full blown horror. It’s obvious that director Aster is a fan of classics like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, especially in the twisted (and gory) final act.
The transition isn’t exactly a smooth one though. It’s rather sluggish and even seems a bit out of the blue. Things gets a bit confusing too, especially after the seance. Astor tries to keep that carefully crafted slow burn dread from the first half of the film, but it doesn’t quite fit. What results is an ending that some audience members will love, specifically those that are genuine horror buffs, but it might make others look at each other in genuine confusion and think ‘what’?
Hereditary is still a brilliant film though. It’s very much an experience. From the primal screams to the trippy miniatures, you’ll come away feeling genuinely disturbed, and you’ll probably go back for more. This is the kind of film that gets better with every watch.
Hereditary is in now playing in Czech cinemas through Vertical Entertainment.