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Hereditary (2018) written and directed by Ari Aster

A family dealing with loss and mental illness

This horror-drama focuses on a family of four living in rural America. Annie (Toni Collette) is an artist who makes dollhouse-style miniature recreations of events in her life - the most recent of which has been the loss of her overbearing mother Ellen. Her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is a withdrawn and somewhat mentally fragile child who creates figures out of various objects which she finds. Adolescent Peter (Alex Wolff) is a stoner who pursues female classmate Bridget (Mallory Bechtel). Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) focuses on remaining the family unit’s rock of stability.

Milly Shapiro in Hereditary (2018)

While they come to terms with the aftermath of the loss of Ellen, they are affected by a string of bizarre and unexplained occurrences. Steve receives a phone call at work revealing that her grave has been desecrated. Charlie, meanwhile, is startled by a pigeon suddenly crashing into a classroom window and then, later on, by various hallucinatory experiences. Are the family falling victim to a malicious campaign of pranks? Are they suffering from the effects of mental illness, as some of Annie’s relatives have done in the past? Are they under attack from demonic supernatural spirits?

Watch a trailer:

Is it the new The Exorcist?

Ari Aster’s Hereditary has already garnered both considerable acclaim and some measure of controversy. For one thing, a trailer for the film created a panic in one Australian cinema after it was accidentally run prior to a screening of the family-friendly Beatrix Potter adaptation Peter Rabbit. For another, the fact that it has been hyped up to be “this generation’s The Exorcist” has induced a wave of skepticism amongst fans of the 1973 classic, most notably from film critic Mark Kermode. He has a point; quite apart from the weight of expectation that a forced comparison with William Friedkin’s much-admired demonic possession horror would bestow upon it, such a proclamation might also imply that it is some kind of clone. It’s not. Okay, so there are one or two elements which might remind one of that film, as there are nods towards other horror/chiller touchstones such as Poltergeist, Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, Kill List and Suspiria. Overall, however, it fits more comfortably alongside two other recent genre items which are grounded in a fraught family dynamic: The Killing of a Sacred Deer and A Quiet Place, albeit taking a somewhat different approach to those two in terms of unnerving its audience.

During its early stages, Hereditary generates an impressive sense of visual style. A dramatic opening dolly shot pushes towards a miniature recreation of a child’s bedroom, before seamlessly transitioning into the real thing inhabited by son, father and dog. This helps to establish two aspects of the film: firstly, Annie’s way of dealing with real-life trauma through her art and, secondly… well, I’d better not spoil it. It’s best that you go in knowing as little as possible about the story (as per my short synopsis above).

Slow-burning chills

In terms of horror elements, however, it starts off in a surprisingly low-key manner. The pacing is very studied and deliberate, the acting by the entire cast is impeccable, and the intimate details of the ups and downs of family relationships are chronicled in a slice-of-life manner. There’s a sense of realism and normalcy about how these people interact with each other that’s far closer to something like Manchester by the Sea than it is to the overdone characterisations which are common in horror. From then on, the film only gradually establishes a sense that all is not well. As a result, when the shocks come in earnest, their impact is all the more shattering. The first taste of pure terror comes during the dramatic incident of the bird hitting the classroom window. It initially appears in the background, out of focus, cleverly both drawing attending to itself and tricking the audience into initially believing that it is just an inconsequential detail. There are plenty more effectively-deployed shocks in store for the audience: a shot of a decapitation so rapid and abrupt that takes time to fully sink in, figures half-glimpsed in darkened corners of rooms and… well… you’ll just have to see for yourself.

The one major fault here is that its conclusion feels rather forced and derivative. While it doesn’t ruin the film as a whole, it feels a little too neat given the maelstrom of chaos which leads up to it. Other than that, Hereditary is another fine example of the recent horror renaissance.

Runtime: 127 mins

Dir: Ari Aster

Script: Ari Aster

Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne, Mallory Bechtel

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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