Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd
Hereditary certainly earns its place among the list of modern horror greats. But the top of the list? Not even close.
Long before its summer release date, Hereditary was under a lot of pressure. Since the trailer was released at the start of 2018, the film has been repeatedly billed as the most terrifying horror film in recent years (or words to that effect), with bold claims following its journey to the big screen - some even comparing it to The Exorcist (1973), which is widely regarded as the most frightening film ever made. Scariness is a crucial characteristic of horror films, and these claims were encouraging to say the least. Unfortunately, the bigger the hype, the harder the fall, and Hereditary appears to be the latest film to suffer from over-adulation.
It certainly starts off strong, the first 40 minutes of the film easily being the best part, during which an unbearably tense and hostile atmosphere is constructed through a masterful use of cinematography. Various shots linger for an agonisingly long amount of time, while others pan around excruciatingly slowly, all of which constantly ratchet up the tension. The use of miniaturised houses is deployed elegantly, providing some fascinatingly unique and peculiar perspectives. More incredible though is Colin Stetson's breathtaking score, which is beautifully expressive and simply nerve-shredding. It is a formidable combination which provides a fantastic horror sensation for the eyes and the ears and is perhaps the secret to this film's success. Much like Get Out, the horror masterpiece from 2017, Hereditary never allows the audience to relax, swiftly raising you to a charged state of unease and then smugly leaving you there.
Three-quarters of an hour after the opening credits, Hereditary still seems unsure of where it wants to go. It seems to consider the life of a psychological thriller before choosing a different path, almost one hour in. It's a questionable decision, one which should have been made far earlier and it transforms the film into something far different than what we have been lead to believe. This sudden change of direction may appeal to some, perhaps enjoying the writhing, unsettled story-line; others may find it disorientating, and wasteful of the effort put into the build up. In either case, a huge amount of momentum is lost, and the film must go through even more set up, testing the patience of any audience.
At this point the film settles into some fairly standard, jump-scare horror, with a bit of gore thrown in for good effect - passably scary for a horror film, but not surpassing anything else that has been released in recent years (e.g. Insidious: The Last Key, 2018; Lights Out, 2016; The Babadook, 2014). It's a shame, as the first half of the film employs a far more intelligent brand of horror; it keenly illustrates the impact of a tragedy on an already fractious family dynamic, exploiting the rifts between individuals and tearing them open, all within a chokingly sinister environment.
So, Hereditary fails to live up to the hype, but this doesn't mean that it fails to provide the frights you would expect from a horror film. It is taut and atmospheric and provides more than 2 hours of uncomfortable squirminess. What really lets it down is the unforgivably perplexing and terribly weighted story; its various aspects lack any explanation or background, each of them appearing, converging and climaxing all within the film's final third. This rushed conclusion means that the audience is given little time to make sense of the story, with the final scene shocking a little but confusing a lot. Little clarity is provided, and while a healthy dose of mystery can be a valuable tool, Hereditary has employed far too much. This is again a wasteful use of the film's first half, which submitted some absolute jaw-droppers and began to push some real boundaries. Far more time devoted to the revelations made in Hereditary's later stages would have allowed the audience to spend less time trying to keep up, and more time enjoying the film.
Hereditary, upsettingly, has fallen foul of the overhype - hype which, it turns out, is misplaced. It certainly has some strong aspects, boasting exceptional cinematography and a monumental original score, as well as knockout performances from all involved - Toni Collette and Alex Wolff are particularly committed, while Milly Shapiro is terrifically creepy. Its fright factor though, while soaring high during the start, provides little more than what countless other films have provided in recent years and the story is poorly weighted and, fundamentally, poorly told.
In one line: Lower your understandably high expectations and enjoy a thrilling but confusing horror film with brilliant cinematography and even better music.