You know, I can’t remember the last time a horror movie has received so much hype and controversy before it was released. Hereditary is the debut feature film from writer and director Ari Astor, that stars Toni Collette and Gabrielle Byrne. It’s a slow burning and dread filled tale of family grieving and the hopelessness of defending yourself against the powers of the supernatural. From the opening scene, we know that things in this household are a little off.
Collette plays mum Annie that builds miniature models with uncanny detail and realism. The opening shot of a tiny bedroom in the house, has the camera slowly zooming in, and then the door opens and we realise we are now watching the real room in the house complete with characters. It’s a clever establishing shot that at once shows us that what we see may not be real, and prepares us for some of the visual techniques that the film uses for the rest of it’s run time.
The family has lost Grandma recently and we then find ourselves following them to the funeral, filled with a lot of strange faces. It’s a scene, like many that are to follow, that tells the audience something, but at the time we either don’t notice it or we fail to see the significance. I’m pretty sure there will be plenty of YouTube videos showing us everything we were too dumb to notice, but a lot of the fun comes from that “Oh Yeah” moment when you start to piece the real story together. So the story itself feels initially familiar, it’s only as we get to the second act that things start to go slightly off kilter and a tragedy that you never see coming, sets the rest of the screenplay in motion.
Now let’s be fair here, this film is a real slow burner. If you are expecting the usual horror movie 15 minute jump scare formula, then you will be disappointed here. Instead we get a more old fashioned approach to horror, with a growing darkness that permeates the film until by the end you are completely submerged in the tar like terror that clings to you even as the credits roll. It’s an effect that you may not have seen since classics like The Shining, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. Things build and build until the final reel when everything goes crazy. Don’t get me wrong though, when the horror does occur, it’s visceral and shocking. There are moments that will haunt you after seeing them. It is however the slower more drawn out scenes that are the scariest. Hitchcock once explained that real suspense only comes from the audience being actually aware of the threat, and the on screen characters not being aware. Astor often proves this by showing us the threat while the cast are unaware. This is a great technique that really shines in the final sequences.
Speaking of the cast, they are all very good here. Collette gives us a study of a woman unhinged, spiraling downwards and out of control. Byrne is solid and stable although slightly under developed, Alex Wolfe plays son Peter and does a great job, while Milly shapiro is odd daughter Charlie, who gives a mesmerizing performance.
All in all Hereditary is an unnerving viewing experience. If you are a fan of the genre then you will probably enjoy, however don’t be fooled into thinking this is from the same stable as The Conjuring or Insidious. This scary movie really owes more to Kubrick and Hitchcock than it does to Blumhouse. Audience members expecting “Boo! You’re scared” are in for a shock as there are very few actual jump scares to be had here. That’s a relief as far as this reviewer is concerned. If I have to sit through one more horror film where the demon, ghost or monster of the piece appears suddenly in the last frame with a musical sting turned up to 11, then I’ll probably just stop going to see them. It’s lazy, old hat and unfair, and is about as scary as someone popping a balloon in your ear from the seat behind.
Hereditary reminds us that scary doesn’t mean “Boo!” it can be so much more and so much better. If you are a fan of classic horror then this is made for you, if you’re looking for a demon nun in contact lenses to pop up in extreme close ups every 15 minutes, I’d give this a miss!