Every couple of years a horror movie arrives on the scene, buoyed along on a sea of foaming hyperbole and exaggerated accolades. On the plus side this tends to get said film noticed in a crowded market, on the minus side audiences can feel duped into seeing something not represented by the marketing materials. It happened with It Follows (2014) and The Witch (2015) – both fine films, but hardly the soul-scarring fright fests promised by the advertising campaigns – and apparently it’s happening again with Ari Aster’s Hereditary. “This generation’s The Exorcist” is the feverish commendation hung around the neck of this genre flick, like a recently killed albatross, and though it’s an exciting notion it’s utterly facile. Hereditary is not the equal of The Exorcist, nor is it trying to be the heir to that meticulous, pragmatic masterpiece – it’s very much its own thing. But is that thing a winner? That’s… kind of a big question.
Hereditary begins with a deceptively simple premise. A family comprising Annie Graham (Toni Collette), husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are dealing with their complicated feelings of grief over the death of a frankly difficult matriarch. Annie begins to notice some strange behaviour exhibited by the already fairly odd Charlie, and while investigating her mother’s belongings begins to suspect something sinister lurked in the difficult lady’s life. And then, just as you’re relaxing into your seat because you know exactly what kind of movie this is going to be, something genuinely shocking happens and Hereditary switches gears completely. And, without spoiling the specifics, the film will do this at least twice more before its too-long runtime of 127 minutes is over, leaving you gaping at the screen and wondering what the fuck just happened.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the second half of Hereditary contains some of the weirdest, most surreal imagery in a mainstream horror film for some years. This is less William Friedkin and more Lucio Fulci, with shades of off-the-wall 1980s Italian cinema and some of the more outré gear from the US in the 1970s. Ari Aster’s direction is initially sombre and contained, using close-ups of Annie’s miniature houses to subtly convey menace, but also manages to showcase the later supernatural shenanigans with surprising restraint, rarely resorting to jump scares or hokey cliches. Toni Collette absolutely gnaws the scenery with relish, making her neurotic, complex character live and breathe in ways both deeply uncomfortable and profoundly human. That said, the script has Alice and the rest of the family making frequently baffling decisions that work in a Dario Argento-esque fever dream kind of way, but are hard to empathise with on any logical level. The film is also too long, with the second act in particular chugging along before finding its feet for the finale, and some judicious edits would have helped sustain the tension throughout.
Ultimately Hereditary is a strange, shaggy beast. Beautifully acted and directed, featuring a gleefully bizarre script and containing some wonderful imagery, it’s an easy film to recommend to adventurous genre lovers. But please, for you own sake, don’t walk in expecting The Exorcist or anything like it. For all the controversy it generated, that iconic 1973 film was a fairly traditional tale of good vs evil. Hereditary on the other hand is a strange, horror/art house hybrid that contains as many shades of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) as it does Friedkin and Blatty. Hereditary is absolutely worth watching on the big screen, but just know you’re in for an unsettlingly surreal, discomforting experience rather than the “cower behind your cinema seat in terror” caper promised on the tin. Expectations adjusted accordingly Hereditary is well worth your time and stunned confusion.