Hereditary is the latest movie to be distributed by entertainment company A24, who have brought us an impressive array of not-quite-mainstream offerings over the years such as Locke, Killing of a Sacred Deer, Free Fire, The Witch and Under the Skin to name but a few. They seem to specialise in films that are a little offbeat, a little south of the norm.
Directed by Ari Aster, this is his first attempt at a full length movie and it is a hell of an impressive one. The film opens with the funeral of family matriarch Ellen, a somewhat stilted and uncomfortable eulogy being delivered by her daughter Annie (Toni Collette) before she returns home with husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Unlike some other horror movies where we have our picture perfect families that are drawn into an increasingly horrific set of circumstances, with this particular family you’re immediately given the impression that something is a little off. The soundtrack, the atmosphere, the performances, the cinematography, everything is set up to keep you tense, to intimate that this has never quite been a happy family.
Hats off to Toni Collette, who puts herself through the wringer for this role. Her pain and frustration and confusion are almost palpable. The same goes to Alex Wolff and, without getting close to spoiler territory, the scene in the car? Simply perfect. We all knew what had just happened and you can’t help but be there with him in that moment. It could have so easily been done badly with overacting, overreaction, but he played it pitch perfect.
The one slight frustration in terms of acting is Gabriel Byrne and that’s not really his fault in this instance, his character simply isn’t given a great deal to do in this film. The focus is most definitely on Annie, Peter and Charlie and his character is just… sort of there. It’s a bit of a shame as Byrne is a superb actor but here he’s just not given much in the way of character development to work with.
Further praise must be given to Colin Stetson’s soundtrack which is a thing of utter beauty. Creepy, disquieting, disturbing, it works perfectly within the film and stands proudly on its own as well. Standout tracks include “Party, Crash” and “Reborn”.
The cinematography and visual design also deserves special praise. The opening shot, which is a long, slow zoom in on the miniature version of the house, is superbly executed. We slowly zoom into the bedroom of the model, only to cut seamlessly to Gabriel Byrne entering the scene to wake his son. The film is filled with lovely, subtle little details that take you a moment or two to notice, but when you do it’s that much more effective. See also the scene in the workroom, and the telephone pole. Trust me, this will all make sense when you see it.
So now that we’ve talked about all the things that worked, was there anything that didn’t? Sadly yes. There is a scene right at the end that just doesn’t quite work. There’s an effect used that doesn’t hit the mark and comes across as almost comedic. The scenes leading to this moment ratcheted the tension to almost unbearable levels so to suddenly be able to breathe, to take stock, and then have this particular effect? Sadly the result is more likely to be laughter than anything else.
Further criticism must be levelled not against the film, but against the original marketing, specifically that first trailer with its claims of “this generation’s exorcist” which may have led to this movie polarising audiences and critics. This is not a genre film. It’s not strictly a ghost story, or a slasher, or a monster movie. It’s a story in which horrific things do happen, but that original trailer gives quite a different impression of the film that you are actually presented with. This is a story about horrible things, about tension and stress and never being entirely sure of what’s real. This is a film that successfully makes the simple act of someone clicking their tongue into a thing of horror. In that sense, the film it most reminds me of is Hideo Nakata’s outstanding Dark Water, the only film to ever successfully make a water stain terrifying.
This is not a film that will appeal to everyone. This is a slow burn descent into horror that doesn’t offer you easy explanations for everything that happens within it and which, sadly, does have an ending that just didn’t quite fit with the rest of the film. That aside, this is a highly recommended film and it will be good to see what else Ari Aster has to offer us after this.