Directed by Ari Aster
Written by Ari Aster
Starring Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, Morgan Lund, Mallory Bechtel, Jake Brown, Brock McKinney
Like THE VVITCH and IT COMES AT NIGHT before it, audiences seem to be split when it comes to this year’s A24 horror feature, HEREDITARY. I blame audience dissatisfaction on a once again over-hyped ad campaign comparing it to THE EXORCIST (which is sadly doesn’t hold a bowl of pea soup to) and the training modern audiences have received in horror via Professor Jason Blum with all of the hollow teenie-pop jump scares that has taken up the theaters in the last ten years. Still, I am of a split mind myself on HEREDITARY. At times, it is quite shocking and bold in its storytelling risks and swift in doling out of the horrors. Then again, I feel there are some really clunky beats going on, some “on the nose” nods to some horror classics (mainly Polanski films), and a bit of convolution and dumbing down at the same time prevalent in key scenes. That said, HEREDITARY is an impactful horror film with an awful lot to unpack in order to really appreciate it.
Toni Collette plays Annie Graham (get it? Anagram? I’ll get into this later) an artist with a family truly steeped in tragedy. After dealing with her mother’s mental illness for most of her life as well as multiple mental health tragedies occurring within her family, Annie is shown heading to her mother’s funeral in the opening moments with her devoted and caring husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her angsty son Peter (MY FRIEND DAHMER’s Alex Wolff), and her seemingly autistic Charlie (Milly Shapiro). At the funeral, we hear that Annie had a complex relationship with her mother, who was very secretive, had friends no one knew about, and suffered from mental illness for the latter part of her life. After the funeral, Annie feels as if she should be mourning her mother’s death, but instead feels nothing. Steve is trying to be the steadfast glue holding the family together with support, patience, and understanding. Peter, who never had a connection with his grandmother, feels ambivalent. And Charlie seems to be the only one who is remorseful in her own withdrawn way, making art out of found objects, eating candy bars, and making a clicking sound with her tongue. When another tragedy occurs much more close to home, it is at that moment when the sparks really fly and the emotions run wild, opening the narrative to many interpretations. Is everyone just nuts? Or is there something supernatural going on? While the film doesn’t seem too interested in making that distinction for most of its runtime, it makes a balancing act between insanity and the supernatural throughout.
Without a doubt, Ari Aster is a smart and talented guy. From the opening sequence which alternates between the miniature displays Annie makes in her art and the real world rooms they mimic in the Graham household, everything has an almost dream-like feel, as if you aren’t sure if it’s the artwork or a real-life scene at the beginning of each scene transition. This gives the film and overall feeling of unease that I really liked. While many might not like knowing what kind of horror movie they are watching, I don’t mind it and while I believe the film’s hype was over the top, the snippets of horror we saw in the previews were excellent in not revealing exactly what it was that was going to be scaring the juices out of us. The misstep is simply mentioning THE EXORCIST, as it not only suggests an entirely different movie, but it also isn’t quite accurate in comparison (I guess it isn’t PC to compare it to what it is really like—Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY and REPULSION). Audiences expecting pea soup and Christ compellings are going to be sorely disappointed.
Aster laces truly scary music and sound effects in with some terrifying imagery pretty much throughout the entire film, letting us know that almost anything can and might happen by the time this one is done. I like that particular kind of unpredictability in my horror and HEREDITY is teeming with it.
One problem with HEREDITARY is that it misleads you with a much more interesting concept—the horror of inherited insanity, for most of the movie. The film has a bizarre way of telling the story, hopping from one person to another. This is explained later in the film, but it left me wondering just who the protagonist was. Is it the hysterical Annie or the doped up Peter or the lost in her own mind Charlie? Because of this vague throughway and unreliable set of protagonists, I found myself wondering if there might be a Shamalyan twist at the end. Thankfully, none of it was a dream or hallucination…or was it? The way it plays out is very unclear.
HEREDITARY might have been playing things a little too subtle in the beginning 45 minutes of this film. About twenty minutes into the film, there is a true shocker of a moment that will leave you gasping, but even then, the film is very careful in what and when it reveals key elements. It is because of this level of subtlety in the first hour that I think the latter portion of the film suffers a bit. One might argue that THE EXORCIST (which this film is compared to every time you see a poster or ad) does the same thing, exploring medical and psychological causes for the distress before resorting to dealing with the problem through supernatural or faith-based means. But with HEREDITARY, for most of the show, we are led to believe that the cause is mental fracturing, which forces us to turn a blind eye to some of the more supernatural clues going on in the magician’s other hand. That supernatural part while vaguely in the air from the beginning, becomes apparent a little too late for my tastes and I think this turnaround from the real world to the supernatural might turn off some viewers.
And while there are clues along the way, I found there to be quite a few clunky and clumsy bits of storytelling peppered in with the good subtlety. While this might have been a studio decision or simply the author trying to be overly cute, there are some well-worn tropes that I found more annoying than entertaining. Let me put on my Jeff Foxworthy hat for a second…ahem…”You might be in a horror movie when there’s a classroom scene and there’s a broad topic being lectured that explains just exactly what is happening or is about to happen to our hero.” We’ve seen it in HALLOWEEN. We’ve seen it in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. We’ve seen it in SCREAM. We’ve even saw it in IT FOLLOWS. And a scene like this, while it might seem like an homage, actually feels more hacky than anything else at this point. Whenever there’s a classroom scene in horror films, it is best to pay attention (something the lead character most assuredly is not doing) because this is where the writer tries to be clever and simply has the lector tell the viewer what they are about to experience.
Take the classroom two-by-foreshadowing and the “just in case you missed it” explanation at the very end which needlessly explains all of the weird shit that happens in the latter 15 minutes of the film, and you’ve got a film that doesn’t really trust the audience to get it without blatant exposition. For me, that undercut what really is a nicely made movie. There are some scenes of true horror. The acting is stellar from all four of the main characters (though occasionally the close-ups on Collette’s exaggerated facial expressions bordered on comical as the film went on). HEREDITARY is one of those films that will inundate you with raw emotion. There are scenes of normality such as a dinner scene that is as harrowing as it gets. It will strike you with images that are both uncomfortable and unsettling as with the final ritual/coronation scene. It is a film that works almost too painstakingly well from a construction standpoint and I might argue that too much emphasis was made to make everything fit together as tightly as it does. Everything in this film means something or has some resonance to the story. This makes for a symmetrical story, for sure—but one that is slightly less effective because all of the pieces are laid out as neatly as they are. I feel there’s almost too much thought was put into this film and that over-intellectualization might actually undercut something so raw as terror. Take Annie Graham’s name for example. An anagram is a word, phrase, or name formed by rearranging the letters of another. This is exactly what Annie is, a jumbled up version of her mother’s odd elements and eccentricities. It also ties into the name of the film HEREDITARY, as mental illness, along with curses, seem to be passed from one generation to the next. Stuff like this is neat to discover, but if there’s too much of it, it feels more like peacocking.
I will give it to HEREDITARY. It made me jump. It made me feel. It made me shudder and even made me mutter “what the fuck?” There are unexpected turns. There are fantastic performances. It’s a great film. It also is no THE EXORCIST and borrows a lot from ROSEMARY’S BABY and REPULSION. I might have been put off by the ad campaign and the homages to classics, but I will give it to this film that it is a film unlike most you’ll see this year. Aster seems to have a fantastic eye—able to capture the surreal as Michael Gondry or Charlie Kaufman does and the truly horrific, reminiscent of Polanski and DePalma. I’m interested to see what pours out of him next. As is, HEREDITARY is a strong entry into the horror film genre, but somewhere along the intellectualization of it and the morphing of it for the masses, it misses the mark of perfection, just by a skosh.