Have you noticed the change in attitude towards horror over the last few years? The majority of the 2000s were a rough time in the genre for anyone who wasn’t a fan of the gore porn offerings of Saw, Hostel, and god forbid, A Serbian Film. What makes for a fun sleepover experience doesn’t stand the test of time in terms of true cinematic quality, and thankfully it seems as though the trend is starting to swing back in favour of more intelligent, less graphic, more subtle horror. Last year’s Oscar winning Get Out is of course a great example of this, with films like The Babadook and The Witch also indicators of a move towards the more cerebral, sinister horror that I love. By all accounts, I was expecting Hereditary to follow in that tradition.
The film tells the story of the Annie Graham (Toni Collette) and her family, beginning on the day of her mother’s funeral. With early inklings of the occult and the supernatural surrounding both daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and son Peter (Alex Wolff), the narrative revolves around the hint of a curse that is descending on the household, and a series of unthinkable and unbearable events unfold to reveal a secret beyond anyone’s comprehension. The problem with reviewing Hereditary is that it is a prime example of a film about which the less is said, the better, but I will try my best to explain just how shook I was at the time and how shook I continue to be days after!
From the off we sense that there is something uncomfortable and wrong with the family dynamic, and that sense of foreboding and unsettling tension does not leave the screen for a single second over the course of what turns out to be a nerve shredding, harrowing and bewildering two hours. When I say that there are three or four things that happen in Hereditary that have the potential to mess you up for life, I mean it. It isn’t a film that revels in cheap jump scares or persistent graphic gore, it builds a tension and an unnatural eeriness that starts off as creepy and ends up as absolutely terrifying. In the exact opposite nature of a jump scare, the filmmakers instead make the audience spend almost too long with upsetting and unsettling scenes, creating a completely different kind of ‘ordeal’ than the Saws and Hostels of the world used to.
Hereditary isn’t a film that lays it all there for you to digest along with your popcorn, there is definitely some work to be done on the audience’s part to unravel all the details of the story. On the whole, this works very well and the narrative leaves you satisfied, but I have to admit there were one or two occasions when it felt like there was a little too much hand waving for my liking. But, at the end of the day, this is a film that deals with the occult, it isn’t something that I would expect to be ‘let in on’ in explanatory heist movie fashion.
As matriarch Annie, Toni Collette gives arguably one of the best performances of her entire career. There is a general trend that actors in horror films fail to get the recognition they deserve, you have to go back to 1991 and Jodie Foster’s turn in The Silence Of Lambs to see any Academy love for the genre. Of course, as is the case in most horror films, Collette’s performance is largely reactionary to the events around her character, but there are two or three key scenes of extended dialogue within the narrative that rival any of the Best Actress winning roles in recent years. There is something visceral and disturbing about Annie, and Collette’s embodiment of the character is irresistibly unnerving. I’m so happy to hear rumblings this early in the year of a possible nomination.
As daughter Charlie, Milly Shapiro takes after her on screen mother in giving an unsettlingly eery performance. There is something about the physicality and on screen presence of the young actress that perfectly encapsulates the sinister and disconcerting tone of the picture. As older bother Peter, Alex Wolff plays out one reactionary scene in particular that will honestly stay with me forever. In the grand scheme of things, Peter is the closest thing to an audience surrogate that the film provides, and Wolff goes a great job of portraying a range of emotions from early teenage angst to catatonic shock and devastation to primal, carnal fear.
Overall, Hereditary might not be a perfect horror film, but it’s pretty damn close to being one. You’ll be hard pushed to find a more uneasy and menacing cinematic experience this year. The tension created from simple, effective cinematography and the tangible boost that a leading turn from a world class actress gives sets the film apart from many others in its genre. I’m always wary of a film that arrives with unbelievable hype, but in the case of Hereditary, it deserves each and every plaudit that continues to come its way. It must be seen to be believed. I’m still shook.