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.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

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.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

They say if we go with them, we'll live forever. And that's good.

Cocoon (1985) Anyone coming across Cocoon cold might reasonably assume the involvement of Steven Spielberg in some capacity. This is a sugary, well-meaning tale of age triumphing over adversity. All thanks to the power of aliens. Substitute the elderly for children and you pretty much have the manner and Spielberg for Ron Howard and you pretty much have the approach taken to Cocoon . Howard is so damn nice, he ends up pulling his punches even on the few occasions where he attempts to introduce conflict to up the stakes. Pauline Kael began her review by expressing the view that consciously life-affirming movies are to be consciously avoided. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but you’re definitely wise to steel yourself for the worst (which, more often than not, transpires). Cocoon is as dramatically inert as the not wholly dissimilar (but much more disagreeable, which is saying something) segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie directed by Spielberg ( Kick the Can ). There