My mother was a very secretive and private woman.
Welcome, all, to Hereditary - this year's Mother! of a movie. By that I mean an arthouse horror unleashed on multiplex audiences to predictable WTF reactions. The screening I attended had walk-outs, gasps of shock and squawks of laughter - enough to distract from what I was experiencing myself. This is an intense film that will test the patience of some, before taking them to places both credulity-stretching and emotionally intense. It courts (make that flat-out 'demands') a love-it-or-hate-it response, hence the five-star reviews adorning its more recent posters and the scathing internet rants in response. Me - I'm still wrestling with it as I write. Bear with me here...
Hereditary is the feature debut of Ari Aster as both writer and director, and it's strikingly ambitious. The story begins on the day of a funeral, the aged matriarch of the Graham family having passed. She had, according to a eulogy by daughter Annie (Toni Collette), a shadowy private life full of secret 'friends', all of whom are in attendance at the wake. The sense of mystery is enhanced by the spiritualist books the old woman left behind in the family home. Grandma may be gone physically, but for Annie, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and son and daughter Peter and Charlie, her weird legacy starts revealing itself in disturbing ways. It will take a heavy toll on every one of them.
Everything in this film has a fine-tuned sense of wrongness from the start. The funeral, its aftermath, the inter-familial relationships - it's all simply off, a notion conveyed via a dozen sweet directorial touches any one of which it'd be a shame to pre-empt. No jump-scares here, this movie never shouts 'Boo!' It's too focused on creating a steady, incrementally building sense of dread through each precisely-judged camera shot and unsettling half-glimpsed image. When the first real shock lands, its does so with real value; rather than propelling you momentarily out of your seat, it sinks right into your bones and settles there.
The cast approach the screenplay's weirdness with a sense of attack. Collette is particularly memorable as Annie. She's muted to begin with, an artist absorbed in creating graphically detailed models of scenes from her life. (These dioramas become a disconcerting motif throughout the film, as the camera glides around them.) Then as her mother's creepy legacy starts to assert itself, she devolves into mania - her grief raw and her fury molten. Byrne is heavy with quiet despair as her husband, and as for the children... Milly Shapiro is pure strangeness in her feature debut as 13-year-old Charlie, while Alex Wolff's disaffected senior high-schooler Peter is dragged through one hellishly scary journey, all of it playing out in his dull eyes. Dysfunction doesn't begin to describe this bunch.
Oh, and Ann Dowd (the formidable Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid's Tale) is terrific as Annie's folksy friend Joan from her support group. On a performance level this has a sense of utter commitment from all concerned, right to the unhinged final act.
Which brings me to the problematic stuff - the bizarre parental choices, the rug-ripping twists, the descent into Utterly Freaking Crazy. Plot-wise you'll leave reeling with questions, many of which might just be answered in online forums or interviews with the director - but should it take that much work? One comparable story of maladjusted family relationships, grief and the supernatural is The Babadook, a film that coheres psychologically in a tighter, neater way, without the viewer struggling to tie it all together. Hereditary is so stuffed with ideas, grandiose in its ambition and titanic in its emotional content, that it's being regarded with either terror or ridicule, dependant on the viewer. Ultimately I felt elements of both.
Horror, like comedy, is a hugely divisive cinema genre. What scares us or makes us laugh is subjective like little else. Hereditary has moments of riveting psycho-drama and creepy genius that are genuinely haunting. But it also threatens to buckle under pressure of its outlandish plot developments and hysteria. As to whether or not it all holds together - that might require a second viewing to decide. But frankly, I'm not sure I want to put myself through it.
Gut Reaction: Intrigued, spooked, shocked, bewildered, irritated, frustrated. All of the above.
Where Are the Women?: Collette is 100% invested in an astonishing role. Shapiro is weirdly mesmerising. And Dowd is an unsung screen treasure.
Ed's Verdict: 7/10. With its mix of haunted-house malevolence and familial meltdown, it will resonate horribly with some, while alienating others. Call me a fence-sitter. I can't love it, but neither has it left my mind. That's got to count for something.