Hereditary movie review: Ari Aster's esoteric film steers clear of jump scares, manipulative horror tactics

Hereditary is an arthouse middle finger to its shrill mainstream counterparts like Insidious and The Conjuring.

Mihir Fadnavis June 20, 2018 10:50:48 IST

3/5

Ari Aster’s debut feature renders a collection of cascading emotions. On one hand, this is a beautifully filmed, extraordinarily performed high brow horror movie; an arthouse middle finger to its shrill mainstream counterparts like Insidious and The Conjuring. But on the other hand, it alienates a pretty massive audience percentage due to its insistence on being esoteric and different, despite scaling some fairly cliché story beats. If you are in the mood for a well made slow burn, this is the film to watch and celebrate, but if you have been brought up on a diet of jump scares or expect something vastly crazy like J-horror, this could be an unsatisfying experience.   

Hereditary movie review Ari Asters esoteric film steers clear of jump scares manipulative horror tactics

Toni Collette in a still from the trailer for Hereditary. YouTube

The setup is familiar – a matriarch (Ann Dowd) in a household passes away and the family is stuck in what seems to be a permanent loop of grief. Annie (Toni Collette) tries her best to take control of the emotional index in the house but there is something not quite right with her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – as is the norm in horror, the child is seeing things the adults are not.

It is a comfortable plot to sink your horror addict teeth into, but there is a vast difference in the way Aster lets you roll with it. Unlike most horror films where it feels like you are inside a horror-themed fun house of people in costumes jumping at you, there is an atmospheric creepiness built in Hereditary that makes you consistently uncomfortable. The closest comparison could be made to The VVitch, which is also from the same company (A24); both films deal with a tragedy, the mental damage that isolation could cause, and a metaphorical horror element that serves as a bookend rather than the centerpiece. The narrative is also very reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s classic Don’t Look Now where parents are forced to co-exist in an escalating series of depressing events that is tearing them apart.

Aster’s approach to scaring you has a refined and scholarly sheen – there is not a single moment of manipulative loud music just to induce shock value. But there are moments like a person finding something creeping on the ceiling wall which, whether intentional or not remains moot, are quite darkly funny. It is also a refreshingly gore free film apart from a single moment half an hour in that occurs after a wonderfully prolonged moment of tension. It is a moment that is significant because it disrupts a rather huge horror cliché and you wish the rest of the film were as subversive.

This is because there are two different films inside Hereditary since Aster takes the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach. This is a very strong movie if you consider its metaphorical aspect to be the true storyline but seen from the literal and supernatural point of view, the plot mechanics fall apart like screws in a running car. The final 10 minutes of the film is when Aster completely embraces the supernatural and it becomes a bit of a let down for two reasons – the revelation is not horrifying or unique enough for hardcore horror nerds, and if seen from the metaphorical lens, it comes across as an overtly explained and overlong spoon-fed information for audiences.   

A more refined aspect than the film’s visual and aural craft is the acting. Collette’s performance is one for the ages, joining the pantheon of memorable disturbed cinematic mothers that includes Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby and more recently, Essie Davis in The Babadook. Alex Wolff, who plays the son, gets a star-making turn as well – he was superb in last year’s My Friend Dahmer as well and surely enroute to big things. The biggest star and draw of the film is of course the directorial vision of the 31-year-old Aster, it is nice to see young and talented filmmakers, given the keys to destabilizing the fabric of mainstream Hollywood and the wait for his next project is going to be long and frustrating.

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