Ari Aster’s directorial debut has its faults, but the combination of slow-build tension and intense, merciless shocks is unbeatable
Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
For the past several years, theater owners have been visibly struggling to find gimmicks to keep film lovers from abandoning movie theaters in favor of their own audiovisual setups at home. The rise of 3D and 4D films, the movement toward luxury seating and gourmet food in theaters, the push toward higher technical standards — they’re all aimed at increasing the value of the movie going experience. But theater owners could opt for a much lower-tech solution: just program a lot more horror movies like Ari Aster’s terrifying feature debut, Hereditary.
More than any other genre, horror movies benefit from the collective viewing experience, the sensation of feeling an entire room full of people gasping in fear, screaming in shock, or giggling out of nervous tension. Hereditary picked up a reputation early on at Sundance 2018 as an exceptionally scary horror film, and it’s a particularly terrific experience in a packed theater. Aster’s story about a haunted family and a mysterious legacy is packed with jump-scares, but it also builds up the kind of slow-burn, nearly unbearable tension that can leave an entire theater holding their collective breath.
WHAT’S THE GENRE?
Horror. More specifically, a kind of seeping-dread horror familiar from the heyday of William Friedkin and Roman Polanski. There’s a fair bit of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby in Hereditary, which draws on Satanic Panic ideas without directly evoking them, and draws out the story with a 1970s-style slow build.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is in a minor state of shock after the death of her 78-year-old mother Ellen. Above all, she’s shocked at how little grief she feels. In a disturbingly candid eulogy, she mentions how Ellen dominated her life, how Ellen shut out her own family with her “secret rituals and secret friends,” and especially how Ellen took an unsettling interest in Annie’s daughter Charlie, even insisting on personally breastfeeding her. That deeply strange detail is never explained, but like so many things about Hereditary, it hints to the audience that something deeply unnatural is going on. It’s even creepier that the Graham family is so deeply immersed in the unnatural that they don’t even notice it anymore.
Annie and her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) move into Ellen’s stately former home, where they encounter a lead-up series of minor scares and eerie apparitions. Ellen seems to be haunting Charlie, a grim and off-kilter child who shows little emotion, apart from resentment and calculation. She tends to ignore what’s going on around her, in favor of making unpleasant little toys and sketching disturbing drawings. She doesn’t seem particularly disturbed when her dead grandmother keeps turning up.
Meanwhile, Annie is preoccupied with the elaborate miniature rooms and tableaus she builds, Steve is busy with work, and Peter is focused on his crush on a classmate. This leaves Charlie free to cut the head off a dead pigeon and make a doll out of it, which also goes unremarked. For a while, Hereditary looks like it’s headed in a scary but familiar direction as Ellen’s spirit seems bent on claiming Charlie, who seems pretty amenable to the idea.
Then the film takes a radical left turn, and stretches out in increasingly shocking, unpredictable, and gory ways. The characters disintegrate under the various pressures they’re facing, and the building tension stems from the question of whether the family will be destroyed by some kind of greedy spirit, or just tear each other apart under the strain. Aster piles on the personal confrontations and emotional breakdowns, but compounds them with unnerving new hauntings, all the way up to an ending that feels foreordained, but still shattering.
WHAT’S IT REALLY ABOUT?
A lot of things. Maybe too many things at once. The most obvious one is extreme grief and how people process it, how they turn inward and shut down, or externalize it and find someone to blame. But it’s also about the sacrifices people are willing to make for power, the urge to express even the most unacceptable feelings through art, and the question of culpability in a preventable but still accidental catastrophe. Per Aster himself, at a post-screening Q&A, it’s at least partially about his need to process the series of disasters that hit his own family, and the way they navigated the feeling of being cursed.
And of course, it’s about scaring the hair off the audience.
IS IT GOOD?
The downside to Hereditary is that it feels cluttered, both thematically and narratively. There are a lot of subplots at work here. In one, Annie has a major upcoming museum show, but she’s been unable to produce the necessary work, so she’s dodging their calls and slipping into depression. Another involves her sleepwalking habit, and a hair-raising story about trying to kill herself and her children in her sleep. When the hauntings get serious, the Graham family faces a wide array of phenomena that don’t seem clearly connected, from spooky dancing lights to a door that won’t stay closed to a book with unexplained magical powers. The supernatural doesn’t seem to follow any kind of rules in Hereditary, which actually undermines the tension: when literally anything might happen, it’s harder to fear one specific thing happening.
That said, Hereditary is a hell of an intense ride, made for a crowd that enjoys heart-clutching adrenaline spikes. The cast is unerringly terrific, particularly Shapiro (a Tony winner at age 10, for Matilda: The Musical) and The Leftovers’ Ann Dowd, who has a ridiculous, awesome five films at Sundance this year. Wolff (My Friend Dahmer) does a fine job with a demanding part, but the film’s most important asset is Collette, who weeps, screams, and snarls her way halfway off the screen and into the audience’s laps. Annie is a complicated character, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes outright repulsive. The role only works because of Collette’s power to sell her emotions to an audience that may want to distance itself from her visible agony. Watching her suffer is emotionally exhausting because she plays the character with such intensity.
And Aster directs the film with a scrupulous focus on intensity. Over and over, he returns to close-ups of his characters’ faces as they take in some grotesque offscreen horror that strains the limits of their sanity. He never makes these shots short and efficient: they’re drawn out like studies in the facial mechanics of fear. Aster returns to the same tricks over and over — those oh-my-God-look-at-that-thing-the-audience-can’t-see-yet shots, characters waking up from sleep to some ghastly thing in their rooms, a certain sound effect that some jerks who see this film are destined to troll their friends with for months afterward. (Although effective, the repetition does eventually begin to drag.)
But Aster’s script really cares about this family unit. Many horror films treat their characters like disposable murder-fodder, but perhaps since Aster was inspired by his own family, he puts a lot of work into building the connections between the characters. He’s invested not just in their survival, but their emotional health, and their connections with each other. Which makes it all the more tragic as Hereditary threatens these things in turn, cruelly and effectively. It’s a merciless film, crafted for maximum effect. See it with an emotional support group, or at least with a theater full of people who are all likely to end up on the same wavelength.
WHAT SHOULD IT BE RATED?
This is an unquestionable R, for everything from full-frontal nudity to buckets of blood.
HOW CAN I ACTUALLY WATCH IT?
A release date is still TBD, but the distribution rights are with A24, which also released Lady Bird, The Disaster Artist, A Ghost Story, and It Comes At Night, among others. Expect a wide 2018 theatrical release with plenty of lead-up hype, showcasing all the people at Sundance who walked out of this film with shaky knees and gaping mouths, then took to social media to rave about the experience.