Hereditary: A Diabolical Tragedy

EVERY FAMILY TREE HIDES A SECRET.

Isn’t it wonderful to see a director make his first feature film and just hit the ball out of the park? In Ari Aster’s case, he had several shorts behind him when he got the opportunity to make this film, the greatest horror movie we’ve seen in many years. One would be forgiven for going back to 1999 and making a comparison with M. Night Shyamalan, who created a sensation with The Sixth Sense (which also co-starred Toni Collette, a scream queen if there ever was one). Let’s just hope Aster’s career isn’t quite as bumpy as Shyamalan’s…

The Grahams are about to bury Ellen, the mother of Annie (Collette), who passed away after being ill for some time. The Grahams had anticipated her death and Annie’s relationship with her mother was strained. One night when Annie is looking at photo albums and objects belonging to her mother, she sees a shape in the shadows that looks just like her mother and feels a presence. She doesn’t tell her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne). However, Annie isn’t the only one to see strange things. Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the youngest child, was her grandmother’s favorite and she also has strange sightings.

Annie reluctantly joins a grief support group, but everything takes a turn for the (much, much) worse the night when she makes her son Peter (Alex Wolff) bring Charlie to a party…

Instant hits or duds
Aster doesn’t really call himself a horror director, but this movie became an audience favorite at Sundance and South by Southwest and he sort of had to acknowledge the fact that he was on to something. It’s not that Hereditary is necessarily scarier than, say, The Conjuring (2013). Much like comedies, horror movies are usually instant hits or duds depending on how audiences react physically to them. As time passes, every comedy and horror movie has to live with the challenge of offering something beyond the laughs and the scares because those reactions always wane. As for straight scares and thrills, this film offers plenty of them; expertly staged, they become a key part of the nightmare that we’re witnessing.

This is above all a diabolical tragedy, the story of a family falling apart for reasons that go way back in time. Part of what’s intriguing here is figuring out what role grandma Ellen played and what happened before her death; like any other family, the Grahams have secrets and slowly we learn the clues. This isn’t a horror movie that enjoys rushing things; it’s a complicated story and it needs time to evolve. What takes place right after the party that Peter and Charlie go to is a seminal, truly shocking event that shows just how dark Aster is willing to go. The film feels more original than most contemporary horror movies because of how cleverly the filmmakers combine the visuals with Annie’s livelihood as an artist, creating miniatures for a gallery; the symbolic treatment of grief; and because of the unexpected, twisted connection to paganism.

There are amusing (if that’s the right word) ingredients here that will have you remembering movies like The Exorcist, The Wicker Man and perhaps Don’t Look Now; its haunting atmosphere most likely served as inspiration for the director.

The cast deserves special mention here. Collette delivers one of the most explosive performances of her career as Annie, a woman who’s experienced a lot of suffering but has the worst yet to come. Wolff is excellent as Peter, the son who endures unimaginable psychological hardship. Then there’s newcomer Shapiro, unforgettable as the troubled teenager who keeps clicking her tongue and becomes a key pawn in a plot that’s far beyond her imagination.

Hereditary 2018-U.S. 127 min. Color. Produced by Kevin Scott Frakes, Lars Knudsen. Written and directed by Ari Aster. Cinematography: Pawel Pogorzelski. Cast: Toni Collette (Annie Graham), Gabriel Byrne (Steve Graham), Alex Wolff (Peter Graham), Milly Shapiro (Charlie Graham), Ann Dowd, Mallory Bechtel.

Last word: “The demand, the challenge, that was there in the script to an actress, always worried me. Because I just knew, I’m asking for a lot here. And this is a part that requires that the actress close her eyes and just jump off the deep end. But that can also be embarrassing sometimes. You need an actor who’s totally in control, while also completely relinquishing control. So I’m very dictatorial with the blocking, which I think can be very hard for actors. And I’m sure it was hard for the actors in this film, because the blocking is set. But I try, or I hope I block it in a way that gives them some freedom in the scene. But as far as Toni doing what she does in this film, that’s just casting. That was me giving it to her, and then she took it.” (Aster, Collider)

 

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