Skip to main content

I think my mother put a curse on us.

Hereditary
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Well, the Hereditary trailer's a very fine trailer, there's no doubt about that. The movie as a whole? Ari Aster's debut follows in the line of a number of recent lauded-to-the-heavens (or hells) horror movies that haven't quite lived up to their hype (The Babadook, for example). In Hereditary's case, there’s no doubting Ari Aster's talent as a director. Instead, I'd question his aptitude for horror.



Or rather, his aptitude for horror when it's overtly identifiable as such. Because, when Hereditary is focussing on a dysfunctional family with unsettling, possibly uncanny or even supernatural elements percolating around the edges of the frame, it's tremendously effective; the phrase "glacial pacing" seems to have been designed with Aster in mind. When it decides to double down on this being a full-blown horror movie, it starts to fall apart, alternately betraying itself as predictable or ridiculous, and has to rely on Aster the director provocatively kindling dread and disturbance as a counterbalance to the misjudged extremities of his own screenplay.


Even in the early scenes, however, there's a feeling Aster is too in thrall to an identifiable horror pedigree. The picture's sound design is often highly impressive, particularly in its assembly of offscreen sounds one can't quite contextualise or those all-important tongue clicks as punctuation points, but there's also an over-reliance on an ominously persistent heartbeat effect that ends up feeling a little cheap, so pervasive is it. I began trying to envision the scenes without this amped-up atmosphere, half-wondering if they wouldn't have been the more effective for it.


That may be telling. Aster told Empire magazine "I never really wanted to be a horror director; there's a part of me that resists it". I can entirely see that, as the movie's standout scenes don't require the genre bracket for their success. Both focus on Toni Collette's Annie Graham, gradually unravelling in the wake of the death of the mother she became estranged from and then in quick succession the daughter (Milly Shapiro's Charlie) who has been horrifically and bizarrely killed in an auto accident (not since Michael Caine in The Hand has the loss of body mass wavered so strongly between shock and unintentional hilarity; while it’s surely the case that the director intended the picture to carry a darkly humorous streak – I’ve seen it said he finds The Shining very funny, and rightly so – I’m not sure that was his objective in that scene). 


Collette's performance, powerhouse and bowdlerising all in her way, is the glue that holds Hereditary together, at least until she's no longer present enough to insulate it. We observe Annie's retreat into a controllable world of miniatures from the first, one also providing clues to there being something terribly wrong with the family (what kind of self-deluded offspring doesn't think it's horrendously weird to make a model of gran baring her teat to suckle her grandchild… although, what kind of self-denying husband – Gabriel Byrne's Steve – doesn’t draw the considerable line at a diorama of their decapitated daughter).


The first scene that really made me take notice was Annie visiting the bereavement support group, where she goes from not wanting to speak to unleashing a torrent of astonishing and shocking admissions – all of which are far more effective than Aster subsequently deciding to show the astonishing and shocking, in order to up the ante. On the one hand, it’s a breathless gasp of exposition that could be argued as ungainly, but on the other, Collette’s delivery renders the monologue entirely compelling, and its unwholesome nature and the stunned reactions of the group make it also rather funny. 


Later, we’re treated to another monologue from Annie, in what may be the scene of the movie, featuring as it does and uncomfortably silent evening meal (prepared by Steve, who has just borne witness to Annie's carnage-in-miniature depiction of Charlie's demise), broken by firstborn Peter (Alex Wolff of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) asking mom how she is. The suppressed vitriol spewing forth is another tour de force from Collette, and Wolff's stunned response is, in its own way, just as powerful. 


These domestic tribulations are entirely riveting, and one can readily see Steve's desire 
not to face ideas that are just that bit too far-fetched, even to the extent that they will be the death of him (at an early stage I wondered if he might be in on it, owing to his curiously keyed "Already?" reaction to the news of the desecrated grave). Certainly, knowing Annie was poised to set his family alight during a somnambulant episode must have taken its toll. Nevertheless, one can't help but find certain structural elements a little unlikely. Sure, Annie is in denial, as much as Steve in her own way, but her lack of curiosity felt a little… Well, all her mother's handy photo albums lying waiting to show exactly what she was up to when she needed a clue. A good thing for the story she didn't feel curious beforehand. 


More damaging is a growing sense of over-familiarity regarding the course Aster charts. He has cited Rosemary's Baby as an influence, and that's very evident, but one can also see other instances of the innocent dupe ending up a sacrifice (or vassal), such as The Wicker Man and its more recent part-homage Kill List. Even The Witch, from the same producer. I was more convinced of Aster's credentials when he was merely suggestive, prior to laying it on with a trowel. Once the implied becomes literal, so the thematic content, be it inter-generational familial abuse or latent sociopathy (the demon child sub-genre), loses some of its edge. 


The final act felt all too predictable in going for OTT moments rather than tonally appropriate ones (I say that, but US audiences obviously felt short changed of such obvious scares, giving it a D+ grade). In succession, there's Steve's immolation, Annie running along ceilings and gruesomely garrotting herself, Peter jumping out of a window in the spirit of The Exorcist before reanimating as Paimon/Charlie, various naked old cultees milling about in corners of rooms and on the grounds, and not-so-friendly-after-all spiritualist Joan – Ann Dowd: I didn't recall her spoilered presence in the trailer, but there are signs pointing to her as a bad 'un from her first scene – explaining exactly what has just happened for any joes not paying attention (which looked as if it had been dubbed in post). 


The failings of the climax underline the merits of the less-is-more approach. Anyone can effectively prey on fears of being alone in bed in the dark at night and seeing things in the darkness; it's the scenes in the bright open spaces of the school that impress. The same is true of the too-slick supernatural apports (the spirit writing, drawing and glass moving all immediately scream "effect"); Aster's on firmer ground when calling on a simple image (a reflection of a face in a cabinet, the eerie lighting effect of a "spirit" on the move).


Mark Kermode was irritated by the use of "A new generation's The Exorcist" to describe Hereditary, not because he didn't think it was good (he hadn't seen it at that point), but because comparisons to that classic are rarely on point. He seemed to be invoking content rather than resonance in is his little rant, but I took the comparison wholly in the latter sense. And on that level, I don't think it can hold a candle. I'm a fairly easy dupe for scary scenes in movies, so I tend to look for something a bit more impactful as a sign of lasting quality. Hereditary isn't nearly as unnerving as William Friedkin’s picture because ultimately, it diffuses its dread. The performances are uniformly excellent, Aster's direction highly impressive, but in the end the picture feels like it has emptied a bag of familiar tropes over its subtler ideas, diluting its potential in the process.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

The past is a statement. The future is a question.

Justified Season Six
(SPOILERS) There have been more than enough damp squib or so-so show finales of late to have greeted the demise of Justified with some trepidation. Thankfully it avoids almost every pitfall it might have succumbed to and gives us a satisfying send-off that feels fitting for its characters. This is a series that, even at its weakest (the previous season) is leagues ahead of most fare in an increasingly saturated sphere, so it’s a relief – even if there was never much doubt on past form – that it doesn’t drop the ball.

And of those character fates? In a show that often pulls back from giving Raylan Givens the great hero moments (despite his maintaining a veneer of ultra-cool, and getting “supporting hero” moments as he does in the finale, 6.13 The Promise), it feels appropriate that his entire (stated) motivation for the season should be undermined. He doesn’t get to take down Boyd Crowder, except in an incarcerating sense, but as always he is sanguine about it. After…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

You’re only seeing what’s in front of you. You’re not seeing what’s above you.

Mr. Robot Season 2
(SPOILERS) I suspect my problem with Mr. Robot may be that I want it to be something it isn’t, which would entail it being a much better show than it is. And that’s its own fault, really, or rather creator and writer-director of umpteen episodes Sam Esmail’s, who has intentionally and provocatively lured his audience into thinking this really is an up-to-the-minute, pertinent, relevant, zeitgeisty show, one that not only has a huge amount to say about the illusory nature of our socio-economic system, and consequently the bedrock of our collective paradigm, but also the thorny subject of reality itself, both of which have been variably enticing dramatic fodder since the Wachowski siblings and David Fincher released a one-two punch at the end of the previous millennium.

In that sense, Mr. Robot’s thematic conceit is very much of a piece with its narrative form; it’s a conjuring act, a series of sleights of hand designed to dazzle the viewer into going with the flow, rath…

It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
(SPOILERS) In retrospect, 1973 looks like a banner year for the changing face of the horror movie. The writing was on the wall for Hammer, which had ruled the roost in Britain for so long, and in the US the release of The Exorcist completed a transformation of the genre that had begun with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; the realistic horror film, where the terror was to be found in the everyday (the home, the family). Then there was Don’t Look Now, which refracted horror tropes through a typically Nic Roeg eye, fracturing time and vision in a meditative exploration of death and grief. The Wicker Man, meanwhile, would gather its reputation over the passing years. It stands as a kind of anti-horror movie, eschewing standard scares and shock tactics for a dawning realisation of the starkness of opposing belief systems and the fragility of faith.

In comparison to this trio, The Legend of Hell House is something of a throwback; its slightly stagey tone, and cobweb…