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Breathless comparisons to The Exorcist, The Shining and Psycho do this fitfully frightening yet ultimately frustrating chiller few favours. Talented writer-director Ari Aster’s flawed feature debut has more in common with such recently challenging titles as The Witch or It Comes at Night (both also distributed in the US by indie-kings A24), although this tale of a cursed family possesses neither the sustained bone-chilling intensity of the former nor the sociopolitical dread of the latter. Veering erratically between promising setups and disappointing payoffs, it shifts from something reminiscent of the scary satire of Ira Levin toward the altogether dopier domain of Dennis Wheatley. Ironically, it’s the very things that Hereditary gets just right that make its clunkier missteps seem so wrong.
We start in fine form, with an Ordinary People-style opening that seems to ask: “What’s wrong with this picture?” Following the death of her mother, Ellen, a secretive woman with “private rituals, private friends”, artist Annie (Toni Collette) feels her world falling apart. Unable to mourn (“Should I be sadder?”) and prone to sleepwalking, she pours her troubles into her work, building small-world miniatures that resemble doll’s houses designed by Diane Arbus. It’s into one of these models that cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera creeps in the opening sequence, segueing seamlessly into the internecine action, suggesting that everything we see is happening in a weirdly artificial world, constructed by Annie’s inherited anxieties.
That sense of unease grows as Annie’s family scuttle around the shadows of their haunted home. Her disconnected daughter, Charlie (arresting Broadway star Milly Shapiro), cries out for her grandma, and makes strange clucking sounds while fashioning morbid totems. Husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), has the air of a condemned man as he fields calls from the cemetery about Ellen’s last resting place. As for teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), he just wants to get stoned with his buddies, clearly unable to deal with the unspoken secrets lurking in his family’s past (“Nobody admits anything they’ve done!”). And then something happens that turns grief into traumatised terror, reopening old wounds and inviting in new horrors.
To reveal specifics would risk spoiling one of the most genuinely alarming sequences I’ve seen in recent years – a breathtaking jolt that made me gasp and recoil, intensified by the protracted shell-shocked silence that follows. It’s a bravura cinematic coup, setting the scene for a spine-tingling meditation on grief and guilt, our senses sharpened by the promise of further scares. Those familiar with Aster’s short films The Strange Thing About the Johnsons and Munchausen will be primed for a poisonous dissection of twisted family rituals.
Elsewhere, a 90-degree camera-tilt mirrors a memorable moment from Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, an astute point of reference from another tale of a besieged mother. All the more disappointing, then, that what follows gradually downshifts into generic cliche, abandoning well-mapped psychogeography for psychokinetic silliness and superfluous plot exposition.
Plaudits are due to the ensemble cast for maintaining an air of realistic distress and derangement, even as the plot parts company with credibility. Collette is terrific as the tortuously conflicted mother whose performance recalls the intensity of Essie Davis in The Babadook, a superior film to which this clearly owes a debt. Scenes between Collette and Shapiro have rich emotional resonance, while Wolff brings a sense of bewildered anger to the family table, matching Gabriel Byrne’s hangdog exasperation. Meanwhile, Ann Dowd, who recently earned an Emmy for TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale, has a tougher time as Joan, a broad-stroke character who appears to have wandered straight off the set of Rosemary’s Baby.
A groaning atonal soundtrack, full of rising polyphonic crescendos and harsh cuts, provides a heartbeat of horror that pulses through a film that wears its influences on its sleeve. Yet those lured in by the quivering quotes on the posters run the risk of being underwhelmed by Hereditary, which, for all its stylistic strengths and subversive subtexts, scares only sporadically. Oh, and for the record, it’s William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III (rather than William Friedkin’s epochal original) that is most clearly evoked in a couple of creepy-crawly scenes.
Source: The Guardian
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