There are conventions within the horror genre, subgenres that have rules of their own, and it’s always felt like one of the advantages of that is the way it puts training wheels on for new directors, giving them a general shape to follow as they hone their craft. Some filmmakers come out swinging, fully-formed and ready to break all of those rules. Some filmmakers work within those rules and do so incredibly well. Whatever the case, it’s clear that at least understanding the basics of the genre can give a filmmaker all the confidence they need to find their footing.
Ari Aster’s feature debut HEREDITARY is remarkably assured, and it’s clear that he has ingested enough classic horror cinema that he speaks it as a sort of casual language. There’s not a moment in Hereditary where it feels like he’s not sure what he’s doing, or where it feels like he’s struggling to find the language to get an idea across. I’m not sure I think everything in Hereditary adds up, and there is a very real danger that a film like this, built on classic slow-burn horror language, can be oversold. But if you saw the trailer that premiered online this week and you’re even remotely interested, then rest easy, because Hereditary does one thing very, very well — it scares the shit out of its audience with a surgical, deranged sense of glee.
Toni Collette stars as a woman named Annie who finds herself emotionally askew when her mother passes away following a long illness. She’s an artist who works on elaborate miniatures, while also caring for her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), an awkward girl just on the verge of adolescence, so taking care of her increasingly deranged mother took up a huge piece of real estate in her life. Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is concerned because she’s had trouble with depression before, but this time it’s different. This time, she’s on top of things. Surely she’s not sleepwalking anymore. Surely she wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Whatever game the film seems to be playing at the start, it’s actually much weirder. Part of the problem is that there’s just enough left unclear that the film feels muddled instead of ambiguous. That’s a fine line when you’re making this kind of film. I don’t want or need everything explained to me, but I want to feel like the filmmaker has all of the answers, even if I don’t. Here, I’m not entirely sure if Aster does or doesn’t. As the film wears on, Hereditary seems to shift from one type of film to another, almost like Aster is taking us through a guided tour of the types of scares he loves most from other movies.
Collette was never given enough credit for how much of The Sixth Sense rested on her shoulders as a performer. Haley Joel Osment was great, yes, and Bruce Willis was meticulous in the way he sold the film’s secret in plain view, but Collette was the one who had to make emotional sense of it all. Aster is clearly a fan of her work in that film, and I love that Collette has never been an actress concerned about anything other than the best choices for the film. From Muriel’s Wedding on, she’s been willing to abandon ego completely and go to really uncomfortable places as an actor.
Annie’s mother was a nightmare, and Annie has never really allowed herself to fully deal with her mother and her legacy. How we pass things on to our children is the obvious theme here, and that’s why the film works in the end. Even if I can’t quite sort out everything about the story, it feels like there is a universal dread here built into the idea that we may not realize we are passing along something damaged or poisonous to our children. We pass things on in our blood and our bones, just as we pass things on in our churches and homes. What weight those things have is a matter of great debate, even now. The terrific documentary Three Identical Strangers gets into the conversation in a sad and brutal way, and it made for a strange and bruising double feature with Hereditary at Sundance.
Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro have a lot of the heavy lifting to do here. Shapiro, a talented Broadway performer, creates a compelling and memorable character without a ton of screen time, and Wolff has a lot of emotional scenes where the full terror of what’s happening hits him. There are few more fundamentally scary things than feeling like your parents and your family have turned on you, that they are actively working to do you harm, and that your relationships with them are not what you have always believed them to be. The classic example of this is Rosemary’s Baby, of course, and that film is certainly bouncing around in this movie’s DNA. But Hereditary at least tries to find a new way to put these puzzle pieces together.
One of the limitations of the genre is how often people seem to build movies out of the bones of other movies instead of working from an organic place of inspiration. When I look at David Cronenberg’s work, I know that the body horror is legitimately part of his world view. It’s too pervasive, too deeply felt, too much a part of the very fabric of what he does and how he sees human behavior. The best moments in Hereditary play in a very stark way, and there’s one sequence in particular that has played in my head at least once a day since I saw the film. It is masterfully staged, and in one heartbreaking second, it encapsulates every fear I have as a parent. The aftermath of the scene is equally well-staged, and there’s a literate, adult approach to what easily could just be empty shock. Not only does it remind me of both the creeping dread of the South Korean horror explosion and the casual cruelty of the new wave of French horror, but it also stakes out some classic old-fashioned ghost story haunted house scares just to keep things interesting.
All in all, Hereditary is a heady mix, and like many horror films, this one will be best experienced in a theater or with a large group of people. Pawel Pogorzelski’s crisp, expertly modulated photography layers on the fear without resorting to cheap jumps or gratuitous content. Same thing with the razor-sharp work by editors Lucian Johnston and Jennifer Lame. Everyone got what Aster is doing, and they managed to all tune in. It’s a case of a director putting together the perfect team to pull off what he’s trying to do, and I hope he carries these collaborations over to whatever he does next. Even if I don’t think Hereditary totally works in terms of what story gets told, the storytelling is commanding. As an experience, this was exactly what I look for from a Sundance midnight movie — a creepy exercise in control that sends the audience uneasily out into the frozen dark.
Running time: 127 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic