Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 15, 2018

‘Hereditary’ shares DNA with past horror classics

The supernatural horror film “Hereditary” begins with the camera zooming in to a room in a dollhouse, where a small figurine lies in bed.

The implication for what follows is clear: the characters in the film are actors on a stage placed there by an unseen hand. Although they will try to go about their lives, their fates are controlled by that same hand.

Like a Greek tragedy, the characters in “Hereditary “are doomed in ways they could only conjure in a fever dream.”

I will say, without reservation, that “Hereditary” is a masterpiece. I believe it will someday be spoken of in the same revered tones as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist.”

The story was conceived and built with the same care and precision a skilled architect gives to a set of blueprints. The acting deserves all the superlatives I could throw at it. And there are many clever cinematic flourishes, like the way night switches to day in one scene like someone has flicked on a light in a dollhouse.

And “Hereditary” is easily the scariest and most disturbing film I’ve seen. (I put it this way because horror is subjective.)

With rare exception, even sincere horror films have become unwitting parodies of the genre, with movie after movie leaning on tropes and jump scares. But “Hereditary” bore like a beetle to the center of my brain and continued to chew on my psyche once it was there.

I won’t share the specifics except to say no film had affected me like that since I saw a revival of “The Exorcist” at a midnight showing in the ‘80s.

But I worry about “Hereditary” because it wasn’t built to please the masses. For its first 30 minutes, it’s a drama about a deeply dysfunctional nuclear family. The four of them play at being nice but there are things crawling like maggots under the polite veneer.

As in “The Witch” (2015), this part of the film burns slowly, like the wick of a candle that only smolders when touched by the flame of a match. This frustrates viewers who are conditioned to being jolted out of their seats at regular intervals, whether or not it makes any narrative sense.

 But the slowly escalating drama is one of the film’s strengths. How much more effective is a story when you’re invested in the characters?

“Hereditary” also asks viewers to pay close attention. I didn’t think twice about a line at beginning, which the mother, Annie, says while offering the eulogy at her mother’s funeral. “I see a lot of new faces here today,” she exclaims while looking around the sanctuary. But as the film’s final scenes played out, I connected the dots and shuddered.

Also, the ending of “Hereditary” has the potential to be decried as absurd. But that’s not how I responded. To me, it was like the last piece of a puzzle being snapped cleanly into place.

Besides, to ridicule the ending of “Hereditary” is to mock some of the giants of the genre – films venerated over the years as classics.

And therein lies my final concern about “Hereditary.” For all its brilliance, it’s not wholly original. While I was talking with a fellow film fanatic about the movie, he mentioned seeing bits and pieces of “Kill List” (2011) and “Paranormal Activity 3” (2011). I detected shades of “Lights Out” (2016) and strong overtones of “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968).

But horror fans have nothing to fear (pun intended) because “Hereditary” has enough of its own ideas and is brilliant enough in its own right that I cannot fault it for borrowing a cup of ceremonial blood from its neighbor.

Once writer and first-time director Ari Aster has laid the groundwork with the family drama, “Hereditary” takes a hard-right turn with the most shocking scene in recent film history.

I like how Aster cut the scene. He held back on showing the horrific results of this occurrence until after the family had responded to what had happened. I thought this was smart, as it drew me in and added to the impact of the scene.

Once the wick has taken the flame and begins to burn brightly, “Hereditary” is relentless in its pursuit of its ultimate horrors. But above everything – above the haunting use of shadows to barely hide things you wouldn’t want to see in real life, above the creepy imagery that haunted me for several days and above the intensity of the film’s climax – is the towering performance of Toni Collette as Annie.

A slightly disillusioned mother who has a fondness for creating miniature dollhouses, Annie experiences untold emotional peaks and valleys throughout the film. Collette is a virtuoso in her portrayal of every single one – from the grief she experiences as she mourns a terrible loss, to her confusion and fear as she touches the supernatural, to her desperation as she tries to convince her husband that what she’s seen is real.

Like Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby” and Ellen Burstyn in “The Exorcist” (1973) Collette plays the role straight. I cannot think of a recent scene more heartbreaking than the one in which Annie desperately appeals to her psychiatrist husband (an also-excellent Gabriel Byrne) to just believe her.

Collette’s performance is so deep and layered that it creates the possibility that the events of “Hereditary” are the delusions of a mentally fractured woman.

It’s also good enough to deserve an Oscar. The Academy has a notoriously poor memory when it comes to films released at the beginning of a year and a historically-proven distaste for science fiction and horror, but I can’t see anyone else scaling the heights Collette did in this film.

Perhaps you’re intrigued and putting “Hereditary” on your mental “to see” list. Good. Just don’t wait until it hits the steaming and video-on-demand channels. See it now in a theater with a good sound system.

One of the film’s most striking elements is its audio, which is easily as memorable as its wildest visuals. I don’t believe I’ll ever hear the soft clicking of a tongue again without getting chills.

Nor will I see another horror film without comparing it to the experience of seeing “Hereditary.”

It’s been 45 years since “The Exorcist.” How long will we have to wait for another one this good?