Thursday, July 12, 2018

Nothing's Scarier Than Family: Hereditary

Toni Collette in Ari Aster's Hereditary. (Photo: A24)

Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary is one of the few horror films that confronted me with the desire to literally escape the theatre. Hanging on through its teeth-grating suspense and frequent bone-jarring shock was an act of emotional fortitude that I’m still proud of, weeks after seeing the film, and though that description may make the film seem like an Eli Roth-style torture porn marathon (how long can you last??), Hereditary’s thrills are anything but cheap. It’s an amazingly smart and powerful debut from a filmmaker I’ll be excited to watch in the years to come, who walked a razor’s edge of tone and tension to craft one of the finest horror films of the past decade.

Hereditary revolves around Annie (Toni Collette, whose phenomenal performance is sure to be ignored come awards season), an artist specializing in handcrafted scale models of her life, who is spiraling into a vortex of grief after her mother’s death. The corrupting presence of this missing matriarch, who struggled with dissociative identity disorder and seems to have passed this mental illness on to her brood, still lingers over Annie’s house – and still stretches fingers of doubt, mistrust, and hypnotic malevolence into her feckless husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her distant teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and her troubled daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). I have a wonderful relationship with my family, for which I’m always grateful, but Aster taps into his own personal pain to reveal small and horrifying truths that you don’t need to have had a traumatic past to recognize. Hereditary’s script and performances dig deep into the tensions that live at the heart of all family units, inflating every tiny hurtful thing that family members do to one another, every barbed comment and petty cruelty, to epic and deadly proportions. And the common genre-movie push-pull between reality and the unreal, where the things that go bump in the night are presented as elaborate metaphor for real and stigmatized mental illnesses, is handled with a great deal more care than in many celebrated horror films (especially The Babadook, whose heavy-handed thematic messaging ensured that we understood its monster wasn’t “real”). In Hereditary, these people are very sick, but there’s also something very, very bad going on that they are woefully unprepared to defend against.

Milly Shapiro as Charlie. (Photo: A24)

Aster stages Hereditary’s horror with precision and confidence, unfolding its story with deliberate pacing that climbs inexorably towards an insane, freak-out climax. But it’s not a slow boil: the scares come early and often, including a shocker in the first act that’s so horrible, it prompted the first jolt of “get out, run, don’t stay here” that I’ve felt in a cinema since I was a kid. (The immediate aftermath of the incident, which centres the frame on an extreme close-up of Peter’s face, lasts for a solid three minutes and is one of the most devastating depictions of traumatic shock I’ve seen in a film.) Aster achieves a remarkable balance between the comic and the horrific, often releasing tension with an oddly goofy moment before swooping in while you’re disarmed for a jagged stab of terror, which helps keep you off-balance and lends the film a uniquely wicked tone. The nastiness of the script’s emotional drama is heightened by extremely effective camerawork, hostile imagery, and visual symbolism – animals, insects, and Annie’s psychically-charged dioramas chief among them – not to mention the violently unsettling score by abstract saxophonist Colin Stetson (whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, but I’m . . . wary to revisit now). Perhaps most impressive in terms of craft, though, is the way Aster uses scenes of people talking, where nothing strange or scary is happening, to gather menacing clouds of apprehension that he can then release in sudden thunderclaps of blunt horror. Aster makes Hereditary an exercise in surprise: not just in the funhouse jump-scare sort of way (there are thankfully few such cheap shots in the film, but they’re brutally employed; one simple unexpected sound effect made the entire theatre shout in alarm), but more in the endlessly inventive ways that the rookie writer-director creates fresh anxiety and discomfort out of done-to-death horror tropes. If I told you what happens in Hereditary’s latter half – which I won’t, because those terrible delights should be yours to discover – you’d scoff at its apparent lack of originality. The transition from page to screen, from concept to execution, is where the real magic happens.

The only thing that disappointed me was the film’s final scene; Aster indulges his fear that the audience won’t have kept up and succumbs to the need to explain everything in detail (through a clumsy monologue, no less) that saps some of the horrific ecstasy of those final shots. I think a wordless coda would have been twice as powerful. Hereditary deserves the bold and shocking ending Aster clearly imagined in his mind (no doubt with Kubrick, Friedkin, and Polanski looking approvingly over his shoulder), so to see him buckle and compromise in these crucial final moments is quite frustrating. I’m confident that this misstep is the result of inexperience, which makes me twice as eager to see Aster learn from it in his future efforts. If he can deliver anything that’s as gut-wrenchingly powerful as Hereditary – whether or not it deals in the same overwhelming dread, with the same devilish glee – I’ll be thrilled to white-knuckle my way through it.

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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