You know, I stated previously that my main quibble with modern horror films is that, while the expression and feeling of fear is complex, multifarious, and unlimited, the template for these films are anything but. I've also previously provided much acclaim for those that go the extra mile and attempt to match that natural, veritable level of complexity and layered intensity. And that'll be the case with Hereditary. The film both outwardly and obliquely expresses the fear of loss, the fear of failing as a parent, and the fear of perpetuating a negative family legacy. All of this coming from a supernatural horror film.
A24, please don't show any signs of slowing down.
Hereditary opens with a family comprised of husband/father Steve, wife/mother Annie, who works as a miniaturist artist, son Peter, and daughter Charlie. Their grandmother, Ellen, has recently passed away and the family, particularly Annie, is struggling to cope with the loss. The family is put into further turmoil when Charlie dies in a car accident caused by Peter. She soon afterwards meets a lady named Joan, who lost her son and grandson. Joan convinces Annie to communicate with her deceased daughter via a séance. However, this soon produces dire consequences. Will the family be able to recover? And how much did Grandma Ellen know?
With such a distinct, original studio such as A24, it doesn't surprise me that the film has such a unique style of cinematography, thanks to cinematographer Pawel Porgozelski. She has a unique way of framing that is wide, afar, and observant. It focuses on the scene, but gives everything proper space, as if it's letting the mood of the moment be the star. It uses close-ups, but sagaciously and sparingly. When they are used, they are used to probe in on the character's feelings. There are even instances where the camera focuses on the niceties and details of the house, thus personifying the house in a way.
Sonically, the film manages to stand out. While the dialogue is not muted by any means, sound editor Alfred DeGrand amplifies several emotional or minute sounds. Crying, breathing, a clicking tongue, the tinkering of a fork; all are accentuated and given as equal an importance and strength as the actual dialogue. And when we aren't being treated to the brilliant, atmospheric sound design, we get to witness one of the most awe-inspiring, unorthodox horror scores I've ever heard, composed by Colin Stetson. It sounds synth-driven, yet he primarily used vocals and manipulated clarinets to produce a motley of sounds. I haven't been invigorated and transfixed by a horror score to this degree since Herrmann's score for Psycho.
There are a lot of keen narrative moves from director/writer Ari Aster. When I first saw the advertisements, I thought that it would be a subversive, original twist on scary-child horror films, such as Orphan or The Exorcist. However, Charlie's decapitation within the first half-hour struck down that expectation. What's surprising is that the real core of the film is Annie and her slow, neurotic, emotional breakdown, first driven by grief, then by guilt, and finally by obsession.
The film is actually separated into two parts. The first half is a plaintive, meditative study on grief. The second half...is the consistently scary shit. Sometimes, you hear critics throw around superlatives, such as "non-stop," which are really rhetorical and superficial, at best. However, believe me when I say that the second half is nothing but non-stop scares. The film manages to go beyond jump scares and actually utilizes some rather macabre, visceral methods in order to scare. And given how one adult male left the audience for two minutes at one point, I think it was effective. The fact that I can talk about indelible scares from the moribund, atrophying genre of the supernatural horror film, the genre that's still showing the rotten traces of Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring, is astounding, but nevertheless, exemplary. And it all culminates to one of the most artfully bizarre, perverse endings I've seen in quite some time.
The performances are all captivating. Milly Shapiro goes from buoyant, vibrant, shrewd Matilda from Matilda: The Musical to portraying a cold, detached, troubled Charlie in this film. With the paltry screen time she's given, she manages to make an impact and leave you invested 'til her bloody end. Former Naked Brother Alex Wolff portrays Peter as a typical pot-smoking teenager that, emotionally, is rather weak and nakedly vulnerable. He manages to make us feel his angst and malaise without his excessive crying being overkill. Gabriel Byrne as the husband primarily stays in his lane as the straight man to all of the chaos, but he himself gets a few effective moments as he begins to feel the effects of the madness. Ann Dowd is deceptively beguiling as the frighteningly genial friend, Joan.
However, the stand-out, expectedly, is Toni Collette as Annie, looking like Julianne Moore bereft of any rest. Right off the bat, she enters the film drained and exhausted, but fervently and valorously attempting to stay warm. By the end, she's raving mad, desperately trying to get the love back from her family, as well as regain her sanity. The fact that her character is revealed to be a sleepwalker and a miniaturist artist on a time clock to meet her deadline for an art exhibition add to her insecurities and paranoia and seem to merely prod at and exacerbate her mental descent. It's horrifying yet tragically hypnotic to watch, on the level of Jack Torrance from The Shining.
"Spellbinding" is the word I would use to describe this film. Watching this film and how it deftly and effectively balanced genuine emotion and genuine horror made me wonder if this is the wave of the future; if filmmakers and filmgoers, as well, have the same plight of wanting to feel more than just horror. I mean, this generation does seem to be the one giving the most credence and evidence that just because something looks good doesn't mean it is. Given all these demands for change, I don't know if horror films like these are a secondary demand for change or a caution that things are changing. Either way, it looks like these up-and-coming horror filmmakers have inherited some good techniques.
Good work, A24. See you at Oscar time!
RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four