‘This generations The Exorcist’. (1973, Dir. William Friedkin) This is the quote that the advertising campaign for Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary (2018) have pushed the hardest. Influences in horror films are all-pervasive and in some ways cannot be ignored. The tropes and clichés that the genre holds are always going to remind one of some other totemic example of the genre. However for me it is often the way these touch points are hit which ultimately makes a Horror film work or not. Does the film rely on clichés and tropes to produce an effect or does it create something new and instead stray into homage or use the ingredients of horror in a new or interesting way.
This is what you may have to think of after seeing Hereditary. The film is not completely original but does this not make it effective? Not at all. Having recently lost her mother, Annie (played by Toni Collette) is feeling distant and disconnected from her family. She makes miniature artworks portraying real life experiences in minute detail, however whilst she may be able to control her art her family is less stable. Her son, Peter is a stoner who doesn’t seem to care about much apart from his high school crush and when he’s going to be able to smoke the next bowl. Peter however has minimal issues however compared with Annie’s daughter Charlie played with a creepy level of detachment by Milly Shapiro. Charlie seems to be deeply affected by the loss of her Grandmother and it manifesting in strange ways. She skulks around, seeing things and making bizarre figures out of wires and bits of anything she can come across. Her quirks and disaffected presence on-screen make her unbearably disturbing at times even if she is actually not doing anything. Oh yeah and Gabriel Byrne plays the Dad, Steve who actually seems to be alright. Ultimately though this family is not in the most stable of moods when we meet them, and to say that things only get worse for the family is an understatement.
If you’re a fan of the basic horror stylings of James Wan or Blumhouse productions usual schlock then this may stray a bit too far for your liking. Aster isn’t interested in giving you jump scare after jump scare, instead he wants to develop and make you empathise fully with his characters. No one feels like they are acting in a way which is just set up for a death, which so often happens in modern horror. I have to give credit here to the two main leads with all of them doing stellar jobs, particularly Toni Collette who is given space to experience everything in a true gift of a role. Her full range is on display here and she really holds your attention tightly throughout every scene she is in. She both displays completely in control and recognisably sane to the complete opposite with an unnerving ease. Alex Wolff’s Peter is also excellent here giving his character a goofy charm in the opening scenes with him which only adds to the tragedy of what the plot has in store for him. You believe totally in the family and you can really appreciate the effort Aster puts into character in order to actually give the scares a pathos, especially as things start to spiral out of control in the films last movements.
Aster here is as confident a director in his first feature as I have ever seen, there was a variety and confidence in the cinematography and framing of the film that I never felt the visuals fell flat. A simple cut from day to night or a glance in the wing mirror is imbued with a palpable sense of dread. There is a lot to like in the film visually with bold and shocking moments being held on for just the right amount of time. There are some extremely bleak points in the films narrative and yet it never really strays into the misery porn you sometimes see in horror.
However this being said this is not the most original example of the genre and does take a lot from perhaps the two most totemic chillers of the 70s. Yes both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Dir. Roman Polanski) are written in capital letters on the walls at points in this film, this is not to say of course that it wasn’t done with style and panache but to say this is an original vision for horror like those two were in their day would be a lie. This is kind of what I love about this film though, I felt watching this like audiences surely would have when they watched those films in the cinema first time. Coming out of the film it felt like I had seen something which truly got under my skin and was going to live there for a long time, its little details living in my head every time I hear a particular sound or see something which will remind me of it. Hereditary is a film that genuinely freaked me out at points and made me excited to talk about it in a way that so few horror films give you the chance to, a truly nihilistic but very well made piece of genre filmmaking that leaves you wanting more from Ari Aster.
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