In the family of horror genre, HEREDITARY is like that long, lost cousin you never knew you had and then one day while eating a chocolate bar with an impassive, deadpan stare watching grandma seemingly sleep peacefully in her casket, you realize something is amiss. Sorrow, pain, tears, perhaps, an uncontrollable, emotional outburst? Why are you not sad? And yet somehow, grief is very much the catalyst that drives the unraveling of this fragile family to great dismay. Such as it is, miniature houses, clucking noises, and Toni Collete will never be the same to me EVER again. It also didn't help, I had to pee 30 minutes, into this two hour diabolical, fire burning, possessive triumph of a thrill ride. Its so good!
The main synopsis of this film begins with the aftermath of a grandmother’s passing, as we learn she was a secretive, difficult woman, which leads the grieving family to wrestle out their emotions in unconventional ways. But what's mysterious is in the mother's eulogy, " I see a lot faces I don't recognize here today". Why would there would be strangers at her mother's funeral? Keep that question in mind. Toni Collete plays the mother Annie, who’s a type of multimedia artist working on miniature houses while being a wife to Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and a mother to two kids, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff). As the story unfolds through some painful, life altering events, we discover this family has inherited some creepy, deep, dark secrets that torments its audience in cringe worthy ways. The filmmaker, Ari Aster leaves us deliberate clues that’s very tantalizing but also seemingly punishes his audience for having preconceived notions on how his horror movie should be conceived. It’s like a-ha gotcha! And the scope of that is beyond brilliant.
Horror is more than serial killers, torture porn, ghosts, witchcraft, supernatural forces that go bump in the night, and basically every indecent crevice that unmasks our inhumanity. Horror can also be very psychological and this film banks on that notion because it adheres to the basic structure of fear. Loss, tragedy death. We've all experienced it and we've all in someway fear each or all of these things. You see this, often times streamlined in other films, and the first one that comes to mind is Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST. And for those of you who have seen it, just contemplate it a moment.
The first half of this film is purely eccentric and psychological because that’s part of the setup for the second half, which unfolds into a world that’s bat shit out of control. HEREDITARY was built on a confident foundation, borrowing from the great horror makers of the 70s. Taking in some moody elements that I can see why some critics hail it as this generation’s THE EXORCIST. Even classics like ROSEMARY’S BABY, that really built some tension on slow moments, wide shots and slow pans are somehow gratifyingly more effective than close ups and fast camera movement. The more distance you have from the story and its characters the more genuinely terrifying it feels. There are also some questionable wide angle shots that amplifies the disconnection of the family as we learn throughout the story, not everyone trusts each other. This tension drives their relationships into some explosive dialogue especially in the dinner table scene which Collete nails on the head tenfold. In fact, everyone’s performance made an impressionable impact across the spectrum from physicality to emotional extremity. It's so good.
Aside from the performances, the ambience aides this film into something relentlessly hypnotic. It sets everything in motion and surprisingly there are moments of relief provided by humor. I’m referring to the moments where Annie meets and hangs out with Joan (Ann Dowd). Joan is also a woman coming to terms with the loss of her son and grandson, who also takes it upon herself to console Annie into some supernatural journey which she wholeheartedly believes may relieve some of Annie’s emotional pain. And blowing past the skeptical attributes one associates with communicating with the dead, Aster somehow hooks his audience into the spookiness. I admit it, I too rolled my eyes. Which leads me to my next thought....
A24 employs a different breed of storytelling, as it’s primary goal is to watch movies from a “distinctive point of view”. If you’ve seen THE WITCH and were totally dissatisfied, it’s because that horror film’s focus was on atmosphere. It practically bathes in it. It's a period piece horror flick, dealing with witchcraft and a again about a family losing control. Atmosphere invokes a certain degree of fear, because it’s a world without control. There's sort of a pattern here. If we control what we fear, then we’re home free. If we don’t control what we perceive as fear, it opens the flood gates to unpredictability. Unpredictability leads to that powerless feeling and its essentially what makes Annie’s character interesting in how she perceives and attempts to control life and possibly everyone in her family by creating these miniature houses. Every freaking detail is a layer of structure. She goes as far as to create a certain scene that occurs in the movie ( I won't give it away, but you see it in the trailer) which in her mind is a “neutral” perspective of the situation which totally pisses off her husband because its disturbing. Because who in their right mind would do such a thing? Someone still in the grieving process, that's who! Aster even clues us in with one of the opening shots, which has that wickedly cool diorama box feel effect. Every detail with the positioning of the framing, the actors, paralleling to the miniature house that Annie constructs. I think that was one of my favorite shots in the whole film because he’s mirroring this perceived notion of control, and then he slow pushes the camera to reveal the actual house. I love it!
Now, the last 20 minutes of this film, is eccentrically sinister especially when trying to tie it all together, something still felt off as if it were designed to purposely discombobulate you. Well done, I'm discombubulated. There was a ton of information flying around, that my brain is still processing on what the hell just happened. And this could be an intentional ambiguous ploy, to be left in the dark and maybe that's the point. If I had all the answers I wouldn't be entirely satisfied and leaving enough room for the audience to venture its own interpretive conclusion is exciting to have such an option. So, I'm conflicted. I don't want to be force fed something that's neatly wrapped and polished, I want grit, smudgy, chaos with a flair of existential conundrum BUT I also want to know about the creepy cult in the tree house! I'll stop right there and wrap this up.
Cinemascore gave HEREDITARY a D+ perhaps because it loosely presents itself to the conventions of an art film. Remember the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT? The proof was in the marketing, splitting the audience’s reaction between garbage and praise but really it’s all subjective. So before you go into this screening just be sure to check your expectations at the door, go in with an open mind, because this isn’t that kind of manufactured generic horror flick that major Hollywood studios love to produce. This is a rebel with a cause as it defiantly steps into an arena, holding true to its premise. Brace yourself for weathering the stormy journey of soul crushing agony because you have to pay attention to the clues even if it terrorizes your mind. Hang in there, it's half of the fun. It will make you oh and ah while you nervously shake your leg obsessively, probably pissing off the person sitting in front of you which is always fun to observe.
And while viewing this decadent slice of entertainment, I was lucky enough to sit with an audience at 10pm where you can feel the energy of anticipation. People nervously laughed, people gasped, body’s tensed up, the inevitable sighs of dread, and miraculously as the credits rolled most people applauded. It wasn’t so bad, it was like the weight of the world had been lifted and people could breathe in peacefully again. People survived this two- hour journey of wide eye’d panic and unintended asphyxiation. Even hearing various banter as people filed out of the theater confirmed this horror flick did itself justice. I’ll never forget this one guy saying, “I’m going to watch some cartoons before I go to bed tonight.” And as I was washing my hands in the women’s restroom, you could hear people humming the song from the end credits. What does that tell you? The essence of this film nestled itself well into the confines of peoples’ psyches because its blatant imagery will haunt you and stay with you like you’ve just reluctantly won a door prize you don’t necessarily want to keep. Everyone goes home a winner, with the possibility of having a nightmare where Toni Collete crawls across your ceiling or attempts to douse you in paint thinner while holding a match. Even the simplest sound device of *cluck* is permanently associated to this film's legacy for years to come. Quite an astonishing feat. Bravo. Bravo.