Hereditary Review: Disturbing? Yes. Frightening? No.
A true original that has the power to disturb via its story of deep-rooted family dysfunction, but won't scare you out of your wits
Hereditary is by no means your typical horror film. By typical, I refer to the usual shock tactics and jump scares employed by just about every conceivable effort in the genre lately. This debut feature by Ari Aster delves into the ravages of family dysfunction, grief, and mental illness to leave you with an overall sense of unease.
The film gradually builds itself into a supernatural story, but it is the all-pervasive element of gloom that proves more psychologically and emotionally disturbing. The most unsettling part of Hereditary is how bleak it is. But it is those same elements that make the film an outstanding drama that come in the way of its intended destination. This intended destination is, presumably, giving the audience the chills. For all its brilliance--sombre tones, excellent cinematography, the miniatures blending into the real house/rooms/characters, a good musical score, an intense performance from Toni Collette, in particular, and so on--the genuinely frightening moments are just not powerful enough. Yes, Milly Shapiro’s portrayal of Charlie, the Graham family’s socially awkward 13-year-old with a deadpan expression and a penchant for odd behaviour, is eerie beyond words. That apart, there really isn’t all that much to get you shaking in your boots.
Ari Aster has gone on record stating that he does not consider Hereditary to be a horror film, but instead “a tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.” Going by those words, it is fair to analyse the man’s feature film debut as a family drama with some supernatural elements thrown in. While it is refreshing to see a film remain original and not fall prey to time-worn clichés, I find it hard to equate it to such classics as The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Shining.
Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd
The Graham family consists of Annie (an artist who specialises in miniatures), her husband, Steve, and their two teenage children, Peter and Charlie. Annie’s mother, Ellen, has just passed on. While delivering her mother’s eulogy, Annie speaks of the strained relationship she had with the difficult woman known to suffer from mental illness. Back home, the loss tends to affect only their thirteen-year-old daughter, Charlie. Her strange behaviour only intensifies when she asks Annie who will take care of her after the latter dies.
Annie is hard at work in her studio when she seems to spot her mother’s presence from a dark corner. She attends a support group to come to terms with the deep-rooted issues she had with Ellen. There, she reveals that her side of the family suffered from a list of complex mental illnesses that claimed the lives of her father and brother. At school, the socially awkward Charlie, who has a fascination for sketching, severs the head of a dead bird and places it in her pocket. When Peter asks his mother for the car (to attend a party), Annie insists he take his sister along. Charlie has an allergic reaction from the cake at the party, and Peter attempts to drive her to the hospital stoned. A tragic accident ensues. And that sets in motion an unfortunate series of events for the Graham family.
Hereditary throws the audience subtle clues to put two and two together; a recurring symbol, a familiar doormat, are enough for you to realise that all is not well here. Toni Collette’s intensity in the role of Annie is one of the highlights of the film. This high intensity comes to the fore when she squares off against her son at the dinner table. The simmering tension between the two builds and builds until it boils over in an ugly exchange that lays bare all of her resentment and apprehension.
Collette’s maternal grief in Hereditary is so palpable that it is hard not to feel for her and her family. The film impresses greatly with its storytelling and vision. The family drama is both psychologically and emotionally disturbing. It is the horror that isn’t as effective. The film has the power to depress or unsettle with its layered dysfunction, but it fails to raise the hair on your neck, so to speak. I am left wondering how much better it might have been sans the supernatural elements.