The nauseating anxiety triggered by this film has only just receded from my psyche. It’s rare, nowadays, for a film to imbue such writhing terror onto a usually desensitised and skeptical audience.
The jump scares are scarce as the film titters towards a creeping-dread approach to horror; horror that emerges from our inevitable capacity to inflict pain on ourselves and those we love. Comparisons with The Exorcist and The Shining do this film little justice however, as Ari Aster’s directorial debut has much more in common with subdued tension-builders like It Comes At Night and The Witch (both films are also distributed by indie-powerhouse A24).
There’s so much this film gets right, it’s tempting to overlook the chortle-inducing ending; indeed, the first 110 minutes are a darkly sublime, Kubrickian excavation of psychological terror and this is where the film should have remained. Instead, the film veers off towards a rather campy finale reminiscent of an occult 70s B-movie.
Following the death of her mother Ellen, a “secretive woman with private rituals, private friends”, her miniaturist daughter Annie (Toni Collette) begins to fall apart. Unable to grieve (“Should I be sadder?”) and burden with anger and guilt, she pours herself into her work building small-scale doll house replicas of her world.
It is into one of these models that Aster’s camera imperceptibly transposes into the action, creating an eerily artificial scene, and the feeling that something just isn’t quite right. It’s a gloomy world with plenty of shadowy corners where Aster playfully teases out the scares. There’s one scene in particular where Annie finishes up in her workroom and goes to turn off the light as she leaves. She pauses in the doorway and stares into the corner of the room. What is it she sees? For a long time you’re looking but you just don’t see it. And then slowly, there it is. The outline of a face in the dark, at least that’s what you think. But you can’t be sure, the light comes back on and…nothing. Just a shadow, perhaps? It’s these subtle moments that Hereditary does so well.
The unease mounts as the rest of the family skulks around in the gothic gloom of the house. Gabriel Byrne plays Annie’s husband Steve, the steadfast, straight-talking father desperately trying (and failing) to keep his family together.
Annie’s daughter Charlie (Molly Shapiro) appears to be the most affected by the death of her grandmother, from whom she was breastfed as a child. She makes strange ‘clucking’ sounds and constructs disturbing effigies with the heads of dead pigeons. Shapiro’s performance evokes genuine sympathy whilst still managing to be profoundly unsettling. Her brother Peter (Alex Wolff) just wants to get stoned and get laid, apparently unable, or unwilling, to deal with the bizarre secrets of his dysfunctional family. Then something happens that is so brutal and so traumatic, it turns the suppressed grief of the family into irrepressible horror and opens up, as one would say, one big can of paranormal worms.
Without revealing too much, kudos to Aster for creating one of the most jaw-droppingly effective sequences I’ve seen in film for a while. The sequence is gasp-worthy shocking and evoked several titters of incredulous did-that-really-just-happen laughter from the audience in the screening I saw. The effect of the sequence is made all the more cogent by the shell-shocked silence that follows. Similarly, the film’s final sequence also triggered laughter from the audience, though for different reasons.
Performance wise, plaudits should be given for the all-round superb renditions by the cast ensemble. Toni Collette reminds us just how good she is at playing the tortured, anguished mother; a similarly brilliant yet overlooked performance she also gave in The Sixth Sense. Alex Wolff is pleasantly surprising in his transformation from a cocky teen to a scared, snivelling little boy weeping for his mother.
The most affecting scene comes in the form of a fraught confrontation between Wolff and Collette at the family dinner table, culminating in an explosive tirade from Collette that will leave you holding your breath. Gabriel Byrne is perfectly cast as the wary and bewildered father trying to keep some semblance of sanity as his family unravels.
Special mentions are also due for the film’s seamless edits by Lucian Johnston and Jennifer Lame. The scenes lurch violently between night and day, sometimes with the literal flick of a switch or the cluck of a tongue. There are a number of sweeping glides as the audience is chased through the scene and panned around to reveal whatever horror might be coming up behind.
So why did they have to ruin all this with such a clunky, cliched ending? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not disastrous. But the rest of the film is so good that the downright laughable ending is all the more obvious.
For the vast majority of the film, Aster takes us on a claustrophobic, distressingly realistic exposition of psychological trauma and terror, exploring the deep wounds that can come from buried family secrets and repression of guilt. Then the film rather idly veers off into the occult and it’s revealed that, by gum, it was the devil all along!
Then come the headless floating corpses, the naked devil worshippers, satanic chanting etc etc. In the end, the film is let-down by lazy writing at the last minute although I still wouldn’t want that to put you off. My advice: just wait until the DVD release, watch it and stop 10 minutes before the end. You’ll thank me for it later.