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New Review: Hereditary (2018)

Updated on June 16, 2018

Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd

Hereditary is an unfortunate mixture of bone-chilling terror and the comically absurd. There are scenes here that certainly make the blood run cold, including a particular death scene that is as harrowing and tragic as it is ballsy and unpredictable. Yet as good as this movie is in working its way under your skin, it completely goes off the rails during its final ten to fifteen minutes. What happens in its final moments might be thematically consistent with the rest of the film, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous and over-the-top.

This is especially true of the movie’s very last scene, which takes place inside a treehouse. Prior to this scene, we’re treated to a long shot of a character climbing the steps into the treehouse, and if the movie had cut to black right then and there (or ended on a more ambiguous note), it would have maintained its sense of mystery and would have been all the better for it. But no, we have to have it spelled out and see what’s going on inside, which would have been fine if what was in there wasn’t so patently stupid.

It’s like the nightmarish climax of Rosemary’s Baby, where Mia Farrow is terrified when she sees her baby for the first time. We never see what’s in the crib; we only have Farrow’s horrified expression to get our imaginations to run wild, and it was far more effective that way. Hereditary’s ending is what you would get if you got to see what was in the crib in Rosemary’s Baby, and it’s just not the same.

This woman deserves an Oscar!
This woman deserves an Oscar!

The movie opens with text of an obituary over a black screen. The mother of a mentally troubled model maker named Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has passed away at the age of 78. Annie confides in her very patient and supportive husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) that she doesn’t feel as broken up as she probably should (“Shouldn’t I feel a little more upset,” she whispers to him when they get home from the funeral), and not even Steve or their stoner oldest child Peter (Alex Wolff) seem all that broken up about it. In fact, the only one who seems to be truly upset about granny’s passing is their young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who clearly has a few screws loose upstairs (if the scene where she decapitates a dead bird with a pair of scissors is any indication).

Annie delivers a eulogy at her mother’s wake that details the troubled relationship she had with her. During her stay with Annie and her family in her final years, it seems that Annie’s mother grew a fondness for Charlie, showing her more affection than she did Peter. At night, Annie lies to Steve and says she’s going to the movies, when in truth she’s heading out to a grief support group. It is there she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), a medium who lost her own child and grandchild in one fell swoop.

Then, something happens. A second tragedy befalls the Graham household, and only the cruelest and unkindest of souls will reveal what it is. What can be said is that it’s quite shocking that we don’t see more of the cops after this tragedy takes place. In fact, given the horrifyingly gruesome nature of the tragedy, I’d say that it’s impossible that the police never show up and conduct an investigation, although a better movie might have allowed me to forgive such a glaring plot hole.

Yeah, there's something wrong with this one! O_O
Yeah, there's something wrong with this one! O_O

For the most part, Hereditary is such an effective and powerful horror movie that I was willing to forgive it. The technical credits in this movie are absolutely exceptional. Particularly effective is the production design by Grace Yun, which creates an almost dollhouse like feel within the Graham household. There were certain empty shots of rooms and hallways that had me thinking that they were close-ups of Annie’s models, until an actor walked into the frame. It’s an effective stylistic choice, and one that completely messed with my head.

Writer and director Ari Aster goes for a slow-burn approach to the story, saving the full blown horror scenes for much later. For the most part, the approach pays off, as Aster builds an unshakable atmosphere of dread and unease right from the film’s sublime opening shot (which the trailers had already revealed). At first, the chills are more subtle, with sinister figures lurking in the shadows of a dark room and the sound design using something as simple as a child clucking her tongue to truly horrifying effect. Then, things get more and more nightmarish as the proceedings wear on, including a truly horrifying dream sequence that left this reviewer in wide-eyed, gaped-jawed silence.

The performances are crucial to the movie's success. Byrne is very likable as Annie’s supportive husband Steve, and Shapiro is quite effective as Charlie. Wolff succeeds in garnering your sympathies as the movie wears on, and Dowd is quite endearing as the mysterious Joan (although the secret her character is harboring becomes more and more apparent as the movie wears on).

This was me for a good portion of the film! O.O
This was me for a good portion of the film! O.O

The glue that holds this movie together, though, is Collette, who turns in an electrifying performance as this haunted and broken woman. Her acting during the dinner table scene where she lashes out at Peter is so good that it should easily garner her recognition at the Oscars. She’s given a few monologues to deliver (which she does flawlessly), the most important being the one she has at the grief support group, where she reveals how mental illness runs in her family and claimed the lives of her father and brother.

The movie actually builds upon that monologue, dropping many hints throughout that the horrors on screen could either be supernatural or psychological in nature. Many of the horror scenes seem to tie in with the family’s feelings of anger and grief; at the same time, there are other discoveries made that are more otherworldly in nature. The film’s gory climax would seem to make it clear that something supernatural is happening, and yet, they could also be dismissed as hallucinations brought on by a mentally ill mind. That would have helped me to forgive some of the less than stellar effects used in the climax. But then the movie has to show us what’s in that damned treehouse and completely destroys its mystery with such an weak and on-the-nose conclusion.

Look, I like A24. They’ve been very divisive with the critics and audiences, with the former embracing their films and the latter dismissing them as tedious misfires. For the most part, I’m with the critics. I loved The Witch, and I even liked It Comes At Night. Hereditary has likewise left critics and audiences just as divided, and while I can understand both sides of the argument, I feel like the critics may be over-hyping it.

Final Grade: ** ½ (out of ****)
Rated R for violence, some gore, disturbing images, profanity, some drug use.

What did you think of this movie? :D

Cast your vote for Hereditary (2018)

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