By: Henry J. Fromage (A Toast) –
In past reviews on this site, I’ve made mention of the relatively new production studio A24, which has gained a significant amount of prominence since earning their first Best Picture Oscar with Moonlight, and has continued to emerge as one of the most reliable and consistent providers of quality cinematic content this decade. But one of their most exciting and unpredictable areas has been their output in regards to the horror genre. While it’s been pretty clear that the horror genre has been experiencing something of a low budget resurgence during the 2010’s (one of the truly great pop culture related pleasures from this decade), A24 has been one of the leading providers of increasingly good content in that area.
Arguably their most well known horror film is the 2015 masterwork The Witch, though also deserving a mention is last summer’s criminally underrated post-apocalyptic thriller It Comes at Night. Now they’re back and have gifted us with Hereditary, which has amassed an unavoidable amount of hype since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. Now, months later and with plenty of time to build anticipation, the film is finally being released to an unsuspecting public, who is very likely hyped up on generic, interchangeable summer fare. In short, this film very well may be just the sort of unrelenting gut-punch the summer season needs right now.
As per usual with these types of films, I’ll try and keep any plot details to a minimum, as to best preserve the experience of seeing this film unfold on its own terms. But just to cover the basics: Hereditary centers on the Grahams, an archetypal mother-father-daughter-son family that’s dealing with the very recent loss of the family’s oldest relative, and mother of the family matriarch Annie, played brilliantly by Toni Colette – a performance that’s absolutely deserving of the hype and acclaim it’s received. Following this death in the family, all manner of creepy, inexplicable acts begin to haunt the family and their dollhouse-looking family home, which is of course isolated in the woods as per the demands of any contemporary supernatural thrillers. And that’s it – that’s all you get. The rest, you’ll just have to experience for yourself, and believe me, this is the sort of film you’ll want to experience with as little foreknowledge or preconceived expectations as possible.
With all the obvious filmmaking skills and technical prowess on display here, one might be inclined to think that Hereditary is yet another in a revolving door of well-polished, finely tuned works from a heartily experienced master craftsman. But in reality, this is the debut(!) feature from writer-director Ari Aster, who, along with The Witch helmer Robert Eggers and recent Oscar-winner Jordan Peele of Get Out fame, has immediately launched himself into horror director stardom with just his first feature. Like any classically trained storyteller, Aster knows that one of the most important ingredients to making a compelling, memorable horror film is first and foremost to establish a connection to the central cast of characters and create a general sense of empathy with them. One of the truest pleasures for any horror viewer is the ability to put one’s self directly into the position of the characters and live out the events of the film through them, thus enriching the experience even more. Collette has gotten the lion’s share of the praise (not least of which from this very review), but rest of the cast deserves a lot of credit themselves, with Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, and newcomer Milly Shapiro all adding their own depth and shades of complexity to their respective roles within the film’s family unit.
The richly defined and well-performed cast of characters would be enough to sell Hereditary on its own, but that all might’ve been in vain had there not been any quality scares or periods of tension within the film, and boy howdy does Hereditary ever deliver on that front. Without getting into too much detail or giving away anything major, this film establishes though a carefully crafted and almost oppressively unsettling tone early on that we’re getting sucked into a world and environment where everything is possible, anything can happen to anyone, and absolutely no-one is safe, least of all the viewer themselves. Director Ari Aster also wisely adheres to the most old school tenants of the horror genre and perfectly explores what makes this type of film so beloved in the first place. i.e. horror remains one of the few ongoing film genres which prioritizes aesthetics and atmosphere over all else. There’s no big hurry to get from point A to B to C within the plot, nor is the audience growing restless, thinking to themselves “So what?” or “What’s the point?”. Everyone’s here to soak in a delicious, unsettling sense of building tension and creeping dread. This has been a major tenet with horror flicks ever since the days of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, so seeing these elements so well preserved in a major release in 2018 with a packed house is a real treat for anyone with an affinity for the horror genre.
And you thought your family had issues…
If you’ve been enjoying the continuing resurgence in challenging, original, and lower budget US horror fare that we’ve been fortunate enough to experience this decade – or just want to see a summer released genre film that functions a bit outside of the formulaic, mainstream Hollywood machine – then Hereditary is just what the doctor ordered. Even if you don’t necessarily find it as shocking or intense as its reputation might suggest, it still functions as an extremely well made and brilliantly acted contemporary stab at a more classical chamber piece. While most certainly not a film for everyone (which the predictably disappointing Cinema-Score rating all but confirms), if you think this sounds up your alley, then Hereditary is most certain worth the risk.
Hereditary (2018) Drinking Game
Do a Shot: each time you notice a potential spook or scare hidden in the background.
Do another Shot: every time there ISN’T a jump scare where there easily could’ve been one.
Shotgun a Beer: whenever Toni Colette completely shreds and owns the screen.
Go Ahead and Get Piss Drunk: to go along with the utterly batshit insane final fifteen minutes.