A stunning horror film debut from Ari Aster, who has delivered a terrifying tale of the disintegration of a family’s collective psyche, and the treachery of a matriarch that lasts long after she has died. Oscar. Worthy.
What a debut. Wow.
Day three of the Overlook Film Festival brought us to the movie that the whole convention was waiting for. If you read many of my columns, you will have read that I believe that there is great art coming out of the short films. This is director Ari Aster’s first feature film, having emerged from the ranks of short filmmaking. The buzz on this film was enormous, as coming out of SXSW and Sundance, it has been getting raves. This was the movie that when I scheduled my trip to New Orleans, was hoping was going to be playing. It also was one of the movies on my Episode 8 Podcast Anticipation List that I announced I was really looking forward to. So, nervous anticipation led me to the Le Petit Theatre to join the throngs to see if the hype was worth it. In a word… yes. An emphatic YES!
The film starts with a funeral announcement, that Ellen, the matriarch of a well-to-do family in Salt Lake City has passed away. Annie (Toni Collette) reads a eulogy that establishes that she was a difficult woman, with a taint of madness, and that there is little sorrow for the family’s loss. The entire family is a wreck, and it becomes obvious that Annie, her son Peter (Alex Wolff), and her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) all suffer from neuroses at best, and severe psychoses at worst. It is further revealed by a grief therapy session that there was madness throughout Annie’s family tree. Gabriel Byrne is the father, Steve, who is desperately trying to keep a sense of normalcy around the house… and the only mostly sane member of the household.
Nobody seems to love each other, and yet they all want to be loved. They channel their problems to other things. Annie is a maker of miniature dioramas, and she uses her craft to detach herself from her emotional being… but it only works for so long. Peter gets stoned with his buddies under the bleachers. Charlie does creepy sketches and creates bizarre and disturbing sculptures from junk and dead animals. Charlie misses Ellen the most and does not trust her mother to take care of her. Peter and Annie have a shared dark secret that prevents them from loving each other openly, as their bonds of trust have been shattered. The death of Ellen has accelerated all of these resentments and grudges. Hints of hauntings begin to show up, but there is little to no horror for the first act.
And then a huge OH SHIT moment (my words exactly when the scene happened) in the second act throws an existential bomb into the family fabric. The whole movie turns on a single pivot. I think the whole audience took about five minutes to calm down, and smartly, Aster lets the characters sit and try and sort things out at the same time as the audience. What. (inhale) Happens. (Exhale) Now? None of them make good decisions, but they are at the same time understandable decisions. I have no idea how I would have handled this, and I don’t know if there is a good way to handle it.
Without spoiling anything, what does happen is that Annie is wrecked. Her family situation just took a huge blow, and she’s looking for answers and finds it in the person of Joanie (Ann Dowd), a member of her grief therapy group. Joanie convinces her to be a medium, and demonstrates how she can contact her lost grandson through a ritual, and it goes well. Annie, initially skeptical, follows through with this… and as you would expect… it probably should have been left alone.
Act three is where the horror comes, and it comes in a flurry. There is a tremendous amount of investment of character that Aster wrote into his story, and the character story threads get pulled slowly at first, and by the bulk of the third act, the whole sweater has come undone. What is madness and what is haunting become intertwined, and the last twenty minutes is a hold-your-breath roller coaster of intensity. The closing scene of this movie reminded me of the Changeling, in its haunting resignation of closure. Extremely satisfying finish.
Toni Collette should get ready for an Oscar nomination. It would be her second, after getting a Supporting Actress nod for The Sixth Sense, but in this film, she is the lead. Her display of depression, tortured grief, manic enthusiasm, and dulled numbness were all affecting. Her depiction of Annie is going to be one of the great horror roles of all time, I’m fairly certain. The whole cast is great. Some critics have been taken to comparing this movie to The Exorcist. I think that by in large that’s pretty accurate in the structure of the film. Both films are at their heart dramas, that build their stories (much like Annie’s miniatures) and both have absolute crazy horror closing thirds. I would also say that this movie is a closer cousin to The Babadook. Both feature a really creepy kid, who keep you guessing if they are going to be the source of the horrors to come. Both also deal with the madness that occurs from loss of loved ones. Both featured actresses who bared their souls for the role. I loved the Babadook, and consider it one of the best horror films of the last ten years. I think Hereditary has a better closing sequence.
I will warn horror fans who like their films to have blood and guts early and often, this is not that kind of horror movie. A Nightmare on Elm Street, this is not. If you liked the Conjuring and can take that kind of intensity, this movie is for you. It is dramatic storytelling infused with brutal psychological and emotional trauma that turns into supernatural torment. Hat’s off to A24 Films for another winner! More like this, please.
Hereditary is Rated R, and will be in wide release on June 8, 2018. (And, an update for our legion of U.K. fans… June 15 release!)