Director: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne
That a film deserves to be ‘treated with the same respect we have for The Exorcist, The Shining, and Psycho’ is a bold claim, but that is the quote (courtesy of Dazed and Confused) emblazoned across the poster for Ari Aster’s debut feature, Hereditary. Indeed, the new film does continue in the tradition of these seminal horror flicks; the suffering of Annie (Toni Collette), as she grieves her mother’s death – despite their troubled relationship – and deals with the ensuing paranormal events, is replete with the tropes these films helped establish.
There are long takes that creep around corners in the family’s spooky house, there are séances that turn sceptics, and there are creepy bodily contortions from the resulting possession (on the ceiling, of course; why always the ceiling?). Unlike any of the aforementioned classics, however, Hereditary fails to innovate, stylistically speaking, for itself. All of these tropes feel like just that: tropes, giving the sense that we’ve seen it all before.
I never wanted to be your mother.
That’s not to say that Hereditary didn’t pack any surprises. An early event (to say any more would be to spoil it) is undoubtedly a daring narrative twist and, at the other end of the film, the story’s conclusion is unexpected, though this does lead it to feel slightly sudden and under-developed. The director’s decision to avoid obtuse jump-scares, in favour of lingering figures just discernible in a dark corridor, was also reliably effective throughout (read: creepy), if not entirely groundbreaking.
Moreover, this sense of restraint was effective in the portrayal of Annie’s young daughter, Charlie (played by Milly Shapiro, whose debut appearance was a highlight of the film). A creepy kid is pretty much mandatory in the horror genre, but her habits – model-building, cutting the heads off dead birds, and even the manner in which she continuously nibbled on a bar of chocolate – contributed to an overall spookiness without being too explicit.
Who’s gonna take care of me?
As is also the case in most horror films, an out-in-the-wilds family home is the primary setting in Hereditary – alongside an impressive treehouse – and it’s very well-designed, cluttered with Charlie’s strange models and Annie’s miniature reproductions of scenes from her life, including pieces resembling dollhouses. These mirror the dollhouse-like manner in which the scenes in the house are often filmed, with one wall removed so that the interactions of the family (rounded out by Gabriel Byrne’s accommodating father figure and Alex Wolff’s traumatized ‘Peter’) can play out as on a stage.
Disappointingly, however, Annie’s miniatures only seem to add such aesthetic value throughout the film; their potential to be used for something more significant (à la the dollhouse in The Awakening, which is used to great effect) is wasted and, therefore, their presence seems somewhat arbitrary.
All considered, it’s understandable that one would link Hereditary to The Exorcist or The Shining, but that’s a part of its problem. Besides some impressive performances and interesting narrative choices, it leaned on the former films’ successes a little too much. Directors like Friedkin or Kubrick are lauded for their innovations in the genre, but what Hereditary’s Aster has created is more a patchwork of the past.