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Friday, June 15, 2018

Hereditary

We may just be looking at the best horror film of the 21st century - of course, I wasn't going to let it go by without talking about it.

And, as always, no spoilers here - I barely even discuss the general plot for fear of giving anything away - but it's never a bad idea to go into films like this with no real expectations so feel free to come back to this review after seeing the film...


With some rather good horror films having come out over the last couple of years (including, but not limited to, IT and a Quiet Place), calling Hereditary a strong contender for the best horror film of the century so far is no longer to damn it with faint praise, as it would have been back when most of its competition was so-called "torture porn" and found-footage Blair-Witch-knockoffs. Even without having yet seen such acclaimed 21st-century horror flicks like the Witch and the Babbadook - neither of which hit South African cinemas, for reasons that utterly escape me - it's clear that after some quite barren years at the turn of the century, the horror genre (or at least the mainstream Hollywood version of it) has made some significant strides recently in returning to its '70s and '80s glory days. And yet, even with all that said, Hereditary stands alone.     

If its success can be boiled down to a single element - and I'm not sure it can - what makes Hereditary such a spectacular piece of horror cinema is the way it manages to be both a very different kind of horror film and one that is so comfortable with the genre's very building blocks that it knows how to use them to maximum effect, while slyly subverting them at the same time. It's a wickedly smart film that displays a level of craft that can easily pit it against the most accomplished "serious-awards-worthy" films out there but - crucially for a horror film - it is also, genuinely and in no uncertain terms, fucking terrifying.

That it was made by a first-time feature-film writer/ director, Ari Aster, is almost unbelievable and more than a little unfair to both other filmmakers and his own future filmmaking career.

Now, whether Hereditary ends up being Aster's Donnie Darko or his Eraserhead doesn't change the fact that it is a masterclass in intelligent, strikingly emotional screenwriting and directing. It's a modern horror film that, despite its actually quite conventional supernatural trappings, doesn't play out at all as you might rightly expect it to. Kudos, not-so-incidentally, to whoever edited the film's trailer, which managed to capture some of the film's terror without giving away very much of its plot at all.

It's not simply that Hereditary goes for slow-burning tension rather than cheap jumpscares - which is uncommon in modern horror but hardly non-existent - it's that Aster somehow manages to make it utterly chilling from its earliest moments, while still slowly building up its oppressively disquieting atmosphere all the way until its final, utterly bonkers denouement.

It's no secret that the film is effectively divided into two halves, with what is probably the majority of the film playing out mostly like an intense family drama about death, loss, and guilt with some supernatural moments thrown in and only the final parts going into full-blooded horror set pieces. Or then again, maybe it is a secret since the shockingly low audience score (C-) suggests that most paying audiences were expecting a much more straightforward horror-film structure.

Whatever, what matters, though, isn't that there are effectively two different films at play here or even the fact that the two parts fit together absolutely seamlessly, it's that the film's ultimate success as a truly scary horror movie is every bit as much about the family drama as it is about the full-on horror scares. Indeed, it is precisely because the family drama aspects of the film are so upsetting and so unsettling that the straight-up horror aspects work as well as they do: taken alone, those last twenty minutes would probably go down more as laughable than scary, but attached to the rest of the film, that sequence becomes just about the most ungodly, blood-curdlingly terrifying thing you've ever seen. Really, when you think about it, the film's Big Evil is really kinda silly and nothing we haven't seen before; taken in context though, well, you would think that Lucifer himself rose up from hell to dance all over your nervous system. And, no, it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever or not you actually believe in Lucifer... you will at that moment.

But then, maybe a little hyperbole goes a long way...

What is clear, once the film has ended and you have regained some control over your senses is that Aster is simply a master of manipulating the maximum amount of terror out of his audience. He understands, for example, that putting something horrific at the centre of the frame is nowhere near as effective as putting it just off to the side, with the focus away from it so that your subconscious catches it first before the rest of you catch up with what you're actually seeing and the shock hits you all the harder for that. If jump scares cause a momentary thrill, this method of subliminal shock worms its way under your skin and creates a much more lasting sense of dread.

Similarly, going back to the family drama vs horror aspects of the film, Aster also understands that there are limits to how much something in which you fundamentally don't believe can, in fact, scare you. Cinema, even at its most naturalistic, generally requires a certain amount of willingness to suspend one's disbelief but horror is particularly susceptible to falling apart the minute its viewers remember that, hey, they don't actually believe in supernatural ghouls and goblins and that all the horrible stuff happening on screen is little more than smoke and mirrors, conjured by, at best, physical effects or, at worst, state-of-the-art animation programs.

What is so ingenious about Hereditary is that the family drama is at once so emotionally compelling and often so horrifying in and of itself that you can't help but be drawn into the world, even as your rational defenses are worn down to the point that the unbelievable, even objectively hokey stuff that shows up later on in the film will have you in its icy grip. More than just great special effects, the film creates fear out of the sheer strength of its storytelling.

Resting on a foundation of pitch-perfect pacing, evocative cinematography, and a relentless if minimalistic score, Hereditary tells an engrossing story of a family coming to terms with the aftereffects of the loss of a member of their clan who exerted a particularly strong influence on all of them and features a cast of impeccably, subtly drawn characters, played by a cast of excellent actors. Regardless of what seriously weird shit happens around and to them, you believe in these characters as people, which means that you believe in what they experience throughout the film - regardless of whether those happenings are genuinely supernatural or simply the result of a seriously pernicious strain of mental illness that apparently runs through the family.

And, even if Aster himself is a newcomer to feature films, he is also smart enough to recognize the security of putting someone as reliably terrific as Toni Collette in the central role - and clearly talented enough to get an A-lister like her to headline his modestly budget debut feature. There isn't a weak spot in the entire cast, with everyone from exceptional newcomer Milly Shapiro to veterans like Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd doing real justice to their complex characters but Collette is just astonishing as a woman being broken down piece by piece by something that she doesn't quite understand. This is not even taking into account that she also has here some of the most horrifying reaction shots ever put to film: if what's going on around you hasn't reduced you to a quivering mess, her reactions to them should more than do the trick.

By now it should be pretty clear that this film isn't for everyone. It's certainly not for anyone who doesn't enjoy the experience of being frightened out of their wits by a piece of celluloid (or, I guess, digital files these days) but even fans of your more typical Hollywood horror films may not get what they're looking for with this. Personally, though, as someone who is something of a sensitive wimp in real life and who actually doesn't enjoy overly sadistic or gory horror flicks but who, weirdly, still loves genuinely scary psychological horror, I thought Hereditary was pretty damn phenomenal and, without a hint of hyperbolic exaggeration, consider it to be one of the very best and most effective horror films ever made.

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