Curled up in my seat, grasping my arms, breathing heavily, and struggling to not look around me at all times. These are the traits of an experience that a great horror film can manifest from its viewer, traits that I exhibited tonight at my screening for Ari Aster’s feature film debut, “Hereditary.” It’s a horror film designed to produce something different from the guessable and unimpactful mainstream horror that audiences are accustomed too, in fact, it's hard not to say that this film isn’t original. From it’s story to its use of the camera, “Hereditary” maintains this sense of unique and nuanced storytelling.
A brilliantly written story that builds from something slow and dramatic that lingers with an atmosphere that chills you to the bone, to something off the rails with unexpected twists and shadowed silhouettes that are sure to haunt my dreams when I lay my head down later tonight. However, it’s also a story that is easy to spoil and ruin for someone unaware of the brilliance that they're about to witness. Ari Aster structures this story in a way that makes it that way, continually blending expected reality with that of horrific fiction making sure that if you give away the surprise, the party's ruined.
You're never sure if the events your witnessing are occurring or just another figment of a nightmare though, like that of Annie’s (Toni Collette) sleepwalking, a habit of hers that once led her to drown her children and herself in paint thinner one night. Waking herself out of the numbified trance with the sound of a match being lit. It’s a story that explains this disruption in the family, well one of them that is. It all takes place after the death of Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother, a woman whose dominating personality estranged them away from each other. We learn her family has a lineage littered with tragedy, a father whose depression drove him to death from starvation, and a brother whose schizophrenia drove him to suicide by hanging. Leaving behind a suicide note that blamed his mother for letting them inside him.
Annie (Toni Collette) doesn’t become stricken with grief, but somewhat guilt. Fearing her mother’s behavior would somehow become her own, tearing apart the family she loves. To deal with this fear, she articulates small figurines. Building a little three-dimensional portrait of her life, from the birth of her children to the recent loss of her mother. She crafts a small glance into the shell of her life, one that begins to haunt her when her family begins to struggle with inexplicable things.
Her youngest daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), ticks with creepiness and behavioral perplexions, like her deadly allergy to nuts. Yet it seems she’s chosen to eat them before, as we see her eating a chocolate bar during the funeral of Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother. Her father asks if it has nuts in it as if she willingly ate them before, well aware of her allergic liability.
Her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), is someone attempting to understand his mother. Unable to forget her sleepwalking occurrence, he’s hard on her and always butting heads. They exchange a passive-aggressive tone of dialogue in a scene in which Peter (Alex Wolff) is asking to borrow the car to attend a friend’s party, a conversation that haunts our story later on.
The husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is a man of rationality and one that seems to be the backbone of the family, constantly reeling his wife back in.
All of this is as much of the story that I am willing to give you in, why the fear starts or how it starts is something you’ll have to discover on your own. These are merely foregrounds for the characters, to allow you to understand the inherent emotion found in the horror that develops a sense of naturalistic realism. Realism that is maintained even when the story jumps from lingering articulative atmospheric fear to in your face and strangely believable events that are handled with a level of mastery from Aster.
Aster in his first feature film has earned that definitive description of mastery because he continuously berates the story with nuance and sense of organized erratic behavior. Unable to predict what’s coming next, and feeling uneasy while you try to be two steps ahead of both Aster's visuals and his screenwriting. They work hand in hand, barely placing pressure on the strain of the audience until they suddenly reveal an image in which you see something lurking in the shadows. Something is remaining entirely still, staring back at you. The camera lingers, staying wide, steady, and calmly placed. Your eyes darting across the screen, and your hands gripping the theater chair, expecting to see something sporadically move, but Aster is not that simple.
Aster keeps you on your toes in that way, always peeking around every corner of the story with this unsure sense of confidence, unable to predict the outcome. It’s unlike horror to do such a thing; we’re supposed to go in a be able to say “wait for it, here it comes,” as a loud screeching noise jolts through the surround sound, convulsing your friend out of their seat. Aster doesn’t do that though; he begins the film with slow, lingering, and depthful camera movements. They methodically meander throughout the frame, never in a rush to get to a scare or the next scene. He manifests an atmosphere; one the exemplifies something worth experiencing in a theatre.
It’s worth that ten dollar ticket, if not to see the magnificent fright that awaits you, then to see Toni Collette throw her name out in front of the pack for the best female performance of 2018. Her facial expressions, her movement, her subtle smiles and twitches, and her constant evocation of emotional outrage is something worth a lot more than ten dollars. She grasps every drop of attention from the audience, pouring out her emotions on to the screen. Never shying away from going all-in, and knowing when to hold back.
Milly Shapiro isn’t far behind though, in her first performance she inhabits a character that dispatches shivers. Manifesting a sound that is sure to be mimicked and replicated for years to come, one that merely involves you clicking your tongue. It becomes a dreaded noise in the film, one that when it occurs, it automatically riddles your body with goosebumps in anticipation for what could be lurking in the shadows.
Alex Wolff and Gabriel Byrne are the backboned performances that could make or break this film. They remain tethered to reality, being the two representatives of those afraid of the events they witness. Not curious, not inspired by, just merely scared. Their performances hold the film together when it needs it most, being those utility tools that every filmmaker needs to craft something of this magnitude because they are essential to “Hereditary” becoming what it has been dubbed as, a masterpiece.
It’s not this generation's “Exorcist,” nor is it the twenty-first century’s “Psycho.” “Hereditary” is something of its own, and it's insulting to call it something otherwise. It’s original; it’s the most prolific attribute that is worthy of the most praise. Ari Aster is a genius and one that has a bright future ahead of him. His direction of the actors, of the cinematographer, of the production team, and his pure manipulation of the audience is something exceptional from any director, let alone a first timer. Pawel Pogorzelski's cinematography, Colin Stetson's music, and the array of impeccable performances can’t go unmentioned, and now, neither can “Hereditary” when discussing the best of the horror genre.