HEREDITARY

by GREG KING

Director: Ari Aster

Stars: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd.

Hereditary

We’ve recently seen a number of horror films that have effectively relied on suspense and a creeping sense of dread rather than out right gore to scare audiences – films like It Follows, It Comes At Night, the recent A Quiet Place, etc – and now we get Hereditary. Following its screenings at the Sundance Film Festival in January where it has been acclaimed as one of the scariest films of all time, Hereditary reaches our screens, but it seems that it has been overly hyped and does not quite live up to these expectations. Nonetheless it is still an effectively creepy and unsettling film.

The film centres on the Graham family who are grieving the death of the family matriarch Ellen. She was apparently a cold woman who also had her share of difficulties, and whose mental state seemingly had deteriorated in her final years. Ellen was estranged from her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), who makes meticulously constructed miniature doll houses. Annie lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and her stoner teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff, recently seen in the remake of Jumanji, etc) but they also had little to do with Ellen. However, their 13-year old daughter Charlie (played by newcomer Milly Shapiro, who won a Tony award for her performance in a Broadway revival of the musical Matilda) was Ellen’s favourite. Charlie though is something of a strange child and seems even more withdrawn following her grandmother’s death.

The funeral service itself is a rather strange affair, and Annie barely recognises anyone in attendance outside of the immediate family. But then another tragedy strikes, and strange supernatural events begin to overtake the family.  Annie attends a grief counselling therapy session where she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), who offers her some advice, and then invites her to a séance which she claims will help her heal her grief by putting her in touch with Charlie’s spirit. But it also seems to invite a malevolent demon into the house that drives the family to the edge of madness. And the more Annie uncovers about her mother and her secrets the greater the danger facing her family, and Peter especially, who seems to be going slowly insane.

Annie learns about an ancient demon named King Paimon, who serves Lucifer, and is set on claiming Peter’s body as his host on Earth. It all leads up to an ending that will certainly prove divisive and spark much discussion. It is also a bit of a let-down after all that had preceded it.

This is not the first time that Collette has played the mother of a dysfunctional family, but it is her first foray into the horror genre (The Sixth Sense was more of a psychological thriller than outright horror). She delivers a bravura, career best performance here that hits all the right notes of fear, guilt, grief, regret, desperation, and even a hint of madness as her physical and mental health deteriorates. There is also a brittle quality to her performance.

Byrne is given less to do as his Steve watches his family fall apart and feels helpless. As Byrne is also credited as one of the executive producers he seems comfortable enough taking a back seat to Collette’s hysterics and scenery chewing. Wolff, who seems to play a lot of troubled teens, is also very good as the increasingly troubled Peter. Shapiro brings a creepy quality to her edgy performance as Charlie and joins a long line of creepy youngsters who have populated horror films.

With its tale of a family under threat from some demonic presence within, Hereditary shares more in common with classics like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, Burnt Offerings and even our own The Babadook than the usual slasher horror film. Hereditary marks the feature film debut for filmmaker Ari Aster, who has previously made a few short films that have centred on domestic trials and traumas. This slow burning psychological horror films marks an assured and confident debut for Aster, who does a good job of creating an unsettling atmosphere and an air of slowly growing dread. He also cleverly subverts the usual expectations of the genre.

There is also some spectacular production design from Grace Yun (Beach Rats, etc). In an interesting stylistic flourish, Aster also cleverly uses Annie’s miniatures to take us inside the Graham house for certain scenes. Moody cinematography from Pawel Pogorzelski (Water For Elephants, etc) also adds to the uneasy atmosphere that permeates the material.

★★★☆

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