To our local multiplex, then, for Hereditary, a first feature by writer-director Ari Aster which has, to say the least, been attracting polarised views, from ‘scariest thing since the Exorcist’ (various newspapers, in a nutshell) to ‘worst film I have since in a very long time. Not even worth 1 star’ (anonymous Odeon review). Having seen it, although I enjoyed it greatly, I can see both sides now (which is quite appropriate, as the eponymous Joni Mitchell track is the outro music for the movie).
We join the Graham family just as they’re burying Granny, Ellen, a ‘secretive woman with secretive rituals.’ Dad, Steve, is trying to mansplain his way out of the whole thing; meantime late teenage son, Peter, is diverting his grief by way of the occasional bowl of hash in school break times, and trying to get off with the girl in the row in front of him. As you, frankly, would at that age.
It’s the distaff side that’s are more of a cause for concern: there’s clearly something not right about Charlie, the early teens daughter, who, when she’s not drawing disturbing portraits in her notebook or fashioning what appear to be voodoo dolls out of assorted bric-a-brac, is making strange clucking noises.
And then there’s the central viewpoint character, Annie, Ellen’s daughter. Let me say right at the outset that Toni Collette deserves an Oscar for her portrayal: the camera lingers on her, much of the time right up in her face, and it’s a masterclass in conveying, micro-expression by micro-expression, the shifting levels of guilt, anger, despair, and plain bewilderment that the death of a dominating parent has brought.
She won’t get an Oscar, though, because this is a horror movie, and they don’t get Oscars. No award likely either, then, for the set designer who created the rambling wooden house the increasingly-dysfunctional family play out their claustrophobic psychodramatics in; nor, indeed, for the sound guy, whose capturing of every creak and groan the house makes (almost an extra character in itself), not to mention the supernatural effects that insinuate themselves around the auditorium, helps to ramp up the tension by the spadeful. Not to give too much of the plot away at this stage, but when you hear that clucking noise seeming to come from behind your ear, you’d better hope you shaved the hairs on the back of your neck pretty damn close before you joined the popcorn queue.
Really, there is so much that’s good about the movie. You’re absolutely rooting for Annie, even as she snaps at her husband’s well-intentioned interventions, and allows herself to be drawn into some home-made juju that you just know is going to make a bad situation ten times worse. There’s a truly, truly, memorable scene where, by way of the second plot complication, a horrific accident happens, and its aftermath is stretched, and stretched, and stretched, and left taut as a bowstring, ready to fire the blazing arrow that skewers the rest of the story’s dark heart.
For a long time, the subtle visual and auditory jolts build the atmosphere towards what promises to be a white-knuckle climax. And then…
Okay, so SPOILER ALERT, don’t read any further if you don’t want to have the plot explained here. As with so many horror, supernatural, or such like movies, eventually the story has to nail its colours to some sort of belief system, and show us the bogeyman behind all this ratcheting tension. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Zombie? Vampire? Ancient undead demon who says Zool when you open the fridge door? William Rees-Mogg?
And that’s the first disappointment. The weird little words like ‘Satany’ scrawled on the wallpaper earlier on were a clue. (As an aside, what’s up with that? Satany? Does Beelzebub get out of bed of a morning and say to Mrs B, ‘Ooh, I don’t know about you, darling, but I feel a bit Satany this morning. Let’s go and char-grill some Jesuits for breakfast’?)
Because yes, it’s your garden-variety secret devil-worshipping cult, prostrating their middle-aged wobbly bits to a tin can idol that looks like a cross between Worzel Gummidge and one of the Flower Pot Men, gone a bit evil. As another aside, always with the naked? I mean, don’t devil-worshipping cults evolve, and like, get to wear some sort of leisurewear at their occult ceremonials? Honestly, it’s not a good look unless you happen to be young and hot. Which, let’s be honest, most of your average devil-worshipping cult members aren’t.
(Britt Ekland in Wickerman apart, obviously: after that scene where she rubs herself along the wallpaper outside Edward Woodward’s room, I’ll never look at anaglypta the same way.)
Gratuitous opportunity for image of Britt Ekland
The second disappointment is more understandable, and indeed forgiveable. I’m guessing Ari Aster doesn’t quite have the directorial financial pulling power of a Spielberg or a Scorsese, whether or not they still have Harvey Weinstein on speed dial (what, too soon?) so the special scary effects in the denouement are slightly south of impressive.
I mean, when the central character you’re rooting for is hanging from a beam in the attic, trying with some success to take her own head off with a hacksaw, and you’re laughing, something has gone wrong somewhere, either with you or the film. And whilst I might normally think it’s the first of these, I certainly wasn’t the only one in the cinema laughing.
Despite these two criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed Hereditary. The first three quarters gave genuine chills: and if it ended with chuckles, well, that can be good too. Cracking script, great performances, shame about the special effects. Is it ‘pants-wettingly scary,’ as The Verge claimed after its Sundance premiere? For me, only if you have a pre-existing bladder control problem. But then, one man’s Exorcist is another man’s Friday 13th Part II, as I discovered years ago when I went to see both with my best pal Nicky and we each found the opposite one scary.
For me, it was the Exorcist, by the way. Hereditary isn’t that, but in case I’ve misjudged you, pack an extra pair of pants. Or as they say in America, pants.
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