Review – Hereditary (2018)

by Old King Clancy

I’ve mentioned before that every year there seems to be one breakout horror film that critics rave about. Over the last five years, we’ve had The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch, Get Out, and now with Hereditary standing out as 2018’s  landmark horror movie. Another connection between the films is that I’ve ended up loving them all and Hereditary is one of the best to date.

Following the death of her elderly mother Ellen, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) tries to help her family come to terms with the loss, most notably her 13 year old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who struggles to accept that her grandmother is gone. To Annie’s surprise though, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her son Peter (Alex Wolff) and even herself aren’t phased by the loss due to the tremulous relationship Annie had with her mother, but through the guilt of her family’s mental illness (which lead to the deaths of her father and brother) Annie attempts counseling to come to terms with the guilt.

It’s during these counselling sessions that she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), an older woman who offers someone to talk to about what Annie is going through. While at first, skeptical of Joan’s over-friendly nature, Annie soon finds herself confiding in Joan about the difficulties her family has faced. At home however, the Graham family start to fracture as they slowly start to feel like something is in the house with them, something that shouldn’t be there.

If you’re still with me then allow me to confess, I’m actually holding A LOT back here, there’s something that happens in this film, about 30 to 40 minutes in, that throws the whole goddamn thing in a completely different direction. From there the film is a VERY slow-burn, the horror is there, but it’s bookended by long periods of family drama and grief. It is still all building towards something but you can’t tell what, even as the film starts giving you hints, there’s a lot still up in the air or too outright f**ked up to understand.

The whole final half-hour kicks this film into a strange, uncomfortable realm, but I was so hooked by the mystery of what the hell I was watching and trying to make sense of it all that even as things got totally crazy, I was still completely engrossed in this story. It takes you to places so utterly distressing and unnatural, that I’m still surprised that actually managed to pull it off this well.

Character work definitely helped to make the film’s unsettling nature work, while out of everyone, I think Steve had the least to do. But he presented the film with its anchoring point, the only character still tethered to reality and allowing a sense of realism to keep within the story-line. Even with the least showy part in the cast, Byrne still kept Steve as a level-headed family man who was slowly broken down by his wife’s anguish, it’s a good role that’s just overshadowed.

Joan was small but memorable role, a friend of Annie’s who helps her cope with the grief, at first she feels like a listening post, existing to give Annie someone to talk to outside of the family, but her place in the story becomes clear after a little scene with a chalkboard. Dowd does this great job with making Joan just a little too friendly, not so much that you distrust her, but the permanent smile in such a downtrodden film is a little suspicious, and you’re not sure where you stand with her until the end.

Charlie gives the film its first twinges of unease, everything about her feels a little off, whether it was her complete disregard for her nut allergy or her desecration of a bird corpse. Charlie wasn’t all there even from the start and for a kid, Shapiro nailed that thousand yard stare that made Charlie such an uneasy character. I don’t want to go into too many details on Charlie because she factors heavily into the film’s second act, and her character turn is too good to be spoiled on.

Her brother Peter at first seems like the typical, despondent teenage son, wanting nothing more than to smoke weed and get laid. But like Charlie, he takes a sudden turn in the second act that gives him a whole new range of emotion to use, most notably an attack of PTSD that stays with him throughout. One of the biggest fractures in the film is the relationship between Annie and Peter that’s never fully given the time to heal. There’s an entire history that has driven a wedge between them and now with death facing them, they’re just driven further apart, but it’s Wolff’s ability to give Peter this ‘Weight of the World’ look to him coupled with his mother’s breaking psyche that makes the character so easy to root for in the second half.

The standout here though is Toni Collette. This is such a strong, emotionally charged performance that it’s a crime that this movie will be ignored come Awards Season. As she explains herself, Annie had a difficult relationship with her mother, not helped by the deaths of her father and brother, but the guilt she feels over being unable to reconcile before Ellen’s death drives her towards seeking help. It’s after the big turn in the story that Annie morphs into a different character, often going from despondent, to furious, to depressed, to concerned, often all in the same scene. Her emotions are thrown out of tune and it’s only exacerbated by her growing need to commune with whatever is haunting their house. It all serves to make Annie this unpredictable character, but Collette sells the hell out of it, never fully letting us believe Annie is crazy, but definitely far from sane as well.

Like The Witch before it, this is a debut feature that feels like it’s from a much more matured horror director, in this case, Ari Aster delivers old-school thrills with a new coat of paint. To be absolutely clear from the start, this is a VERY slow-burn for the first hour, and the scares are very limited. Even then they serve more towards unsettling you rather than jump-scares, it’s all shadows in the dark, unexplained movements, stuff like that, and it’s all really tense. There’s a good reason this is being heralded as a return to the likes of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, because that same level of fear is on show with a focus on a lingering cold rather than a one-and-down jump scare. This is the type of film to creep up on you when you’re not paying attention and without the release of a sudden scare, it stays with you. For the majority of the first half though, the film is actually a lot more focused on the family dynamic which works heavily in its favor because that time watching these four fall apart allows the truly crazy parts to hold a lot more weight to them. The scenes between Annie and Peter in particular factor heavily into the building tension with a confessional between the two carrying a lot of emotional weight. What’s particularly great is that while slow, there’s absolutely no fat on these scenes, almost everything comes back in one way or another. What Annie says about her family’s mental illnesses or pictures in one of her mother’s books, the through line that ties the story together is there from minute one, and will make the movie that much stronger on revisit trying to catch all the subtle references to the ending.

For anyone willing to reach that then you will not be disappointed. Aster essentially throws you into the deep end without warning during that final half-hour with revelations, self-harm, visions, all of it playing a part that brings all the mystery, all the unease, and all the confusion together for a mighty crash. I CANNOT stress hard enough that I am keeping so much of this film under-wraps, the amount of dread that’s pounded into you is tangible, and Aster has done such an incredible job with misdirection, where he takes the film is a left-turn, but it’s not out of nowhere, and that is what makes it stand out all the more.

Hereditary is gonna stick with me for a long time. I can’t remember the last time I left the cinema feeling that distressed, that uncomfortable, but that engaged by what I’d just seen. This is a true-blue horror film that completely earns its place as one of the genre’s best modern efforts. A story about grief that naturally evolves into something far greater, a small, but talented acting set that allowed the film to keep focus on what was important with Colette and Wolff adding the emotional weight and fear necessary to drive the film. And a first time director with the sheer confidence to deliver one of the slowest burning horror movies for an age, knowing that the pay-off will cement this film as a goddamn masterpiece.

I am giving Hereditary a 5 out of 5 Hairpieces!

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