Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” opened on Friday, June 8, 2018, and was immediately met with complimentary reviews from numerous outlets, bolstering its advertisements proclaiming it as the scariest film of the year, or in ages, or some other ostensibly impressive amount of time. However, despite several promising elements, the film as a whole is an utter failure as a horror movie. From the cliches to the tonal mistakes to the thoughtless visual style, horrendous pacing, and almost consummate lack of scares, the film falls far too many times to rise to the upper echelons of the horror genre.
The most glaring imperfection of the film is the unusually titanic amount of exposition that it features. Nearly the first hour of the film’s slightly over two hour run time is devoted to exposition and preparing the audience for some unbelievable horror that never really materialized. That said, it is not totally accurate to contend that nothing occurs in this hour long set up period. No, instead Aster entertains the audience with weird and clumsy foreshadowing including, the protagonist Annie Graham, played with unbelievable commitment by Toni Collette, rummaging through her deceased mother’s possessions and finding an “ominous book about spiritualism.” As if evil books have never been featured in horror films before. Evil Dead and Rosemary’s baby and a million direct to video and TV movies apparently never existed.
On top of that, her daughter Charlie Graham, played by Milly Shapiro, sees a weird ritual in the forest behind their home, and exhibits other odd behaviors such as decapitating a dead bird, constructing cheap DIY voodoo doll style figurines, and making amateurish illustrations in a notebook. The treatment of this character is particularly irritating because at several instances of the film, the camera stubbornly lingers on Charlie’s unconventional looking face. This lingering seems to convey that somehow the audience is supposed to feel some sort of dread by the sheer appearance of her unusual facial features: her small wide set eyes, her tiny pointed nose. Honestly, it just seems insensitive and lazy to try to provoke fear in an audience by simply jamming a camera in the face of a young actress who doesn’t look like the conventional definition of superficial beauty.
Nevertheless, the film does not stop there on the ill advised artistic decision front. The film piles on high with the depressing content early on the film. Collette’s Annie, has a family history that can rival any prime Stephen King cocaine fueled freak show. Not only does her elderly mother die, just as the film begins, who had previously suffered from various mental illnesses but her brother was a suicide victim who battled schizophrenia, and her father starved to death on his own insane accord. All of this gratuitous sadistic backstory is further inflated when her daughter, Charlie, is decapitated in abrupt fashion in a car accident while she is experiencing a severe allergic reaction in the backseat of her stoner older brother’s car. A stoner older brother portrayed by the incomparable Alex Wolff, an actor who’s most notable credit is in the long defunct Nickelodeon program, The Naked Brothers Band. However, despite his odorous credentials, he does make a decent account for himself in an emotionally taxing role.
Regardless, the film takes the bulk of the first hour of its assaulting the viewer with a barrage of depressing occurrences more in line with a drama than a horror film, and alternating this onslaught with sequences that expand the boundaries of cinematic boredom. The supernatural elements are sloppily introduced and built up as the film moves along. An old women named Joan, played with outstanding dedication by Ann Dowd, consoles Annie after her daughter’s death and proceeds to teach her how to summon the dead. After this point the film goes off the rails but never lands in any even mildly frightening territory.
Every occult related prop is funnier than the last, all of the voodoo looking material seems constructed by a low-level production assistant. One of the unholy books, Annie later finds in the belongings of her deceased mother is loaded with comical linguistic characters and another features an amusing illustration of a stout goblin looking fellow who allegedly is some formidable hell fiend in search of a male body to inhabit. The deaths in the film are few and far between but over the top and never convincingly scary when they do arrive. Every actor attempts a tour de force performance but has no direction and no material to elevate the film. The “gruesome violence” shown in the film is done in such a tonally confused manner that it never translates into actual terror.
The goblin from the book, apparently some top eight ranked king of hell, eventually shows up and proceeds to do absolutely nothing other than pose naked with his elderly acolytes. The film concludes on a “soul crushingly despairing” note where evil triumphs and the ghoul man from hell enacts his great victory on Earth. A victory that consists of commandeering a small tree house in the backyard and sharing it with a few old people, a couple of corpses and weird looking statue. It is simply mind boggling to expect a viewer to be afraid of a monster whose only allies are old women and who’s greatest triumph is literally possessing the body of a beat up stoner and taking over a tree house. This “terrifying” situation becomes even less gripping when it is revealed that the ghoul man had possessed Charlie initially and is now inhabiting her older brother. So essentially the hell fiend jumped into the body of a little girl and from there moved to the body of her older brother, thus making him, in the words of Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder, “The dude playing the dude pretending to be the other dude.” In other words, not remotely scary.
The technical elements are just as insulting as the substance in this film. For one, the film is peppered with images of doll houses and shots resembling doll houses but never actually bothering to create any meaningful significance for this visual style. Much of the shot composition and camera movement also seem arbitrary. Whereas in the history of cinema, a skilled filmmaker such as Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese could execute complex but purposeful camera movements that enhance the story and characters in a film, Aster seems to make move and adjust his camera for no reason at all. Most of his setups and movements seem the result of careless impulses rather than a thoughtful consistent visual style.
In short, “Hereditary” is a film that features: a decapitated little kid, bugs, people on fire, self-mutilation, naked old people, witches, a fat naked ghoul and nothing scary. The film is too confused, unintentionally funny, unforgivably boring and unnecessarily depressing to warrant a grade higher than a C.
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