One of the reasons I love going to film festivals is because every once in a while you get totally blindsided by a movie. Nearly every movie we go to see in our day to day lives comes with some kind of expectation. You read about it beforehand, you see tons of stills, trailers, TV spots, all that shit. You can still go into these films willing to give it a chance, but there's usually still an outline of expectation in your mind.
At film festivals sometimes all you have to go on is a title, genre, maybe some recognizable cast, director or writer and a single still. Nothing else. I'll never forget walking into see Let the Right One In and somehow thinking it was a ghost movie for some dumb reason.
Hereditary was a movie that I knew was genre of some type, it was playing the midnight slot at the Egyptian theater (the small theater at the top of Main Street where all my favorite midnight movie memories from past fests reside) and that Toni Collette was in it.
It sometimes gets hard to psych yourself up to do a midnight film after a long day of movies. It was literally 7 degrees outside and my condo was nice and warm, so it did take a bit of will power to get my ass bundled up and on the bus downtown, especially since there was no buzz about this film (since no one had seen it yet, obvs). I'm really thankful I did because Hereditary turned out to be the surprise of the fest for me, at least so far.
This is one creepy, dark, way fucked up movie. Some horror movies want to scare you by yelling “boo!” at you. That's a legitimate tool in the horror filmmaker's toolbox. I like a good jump scare, but they have to be used sparingly or it's just a cheap gimmick. Then there are other movies that want to really sink their claws into your psyche. This is much tougher to do, but when they pull it off you get something really special. You get a horror film that sticks with you. This is the shit that gives grown ass men and women nightmares and that's exactly the type of movie Hereditary is.
This thing wants to get under your skin. It wants to push you to the emotional brink. It wants you to feel a sense of hopelessness and despair for the characters you're watching. It wants you to feel like the stuff happening up there is so wrong that it might just seep through the silver screen and become reality.
To steal a phrase from the great, underseen Dudley Moore comedy 'Crazy People' Hereditary doesn't just want to scare you, it wants to fuck you up for life.
I know this is a huge sell and it probably is erring a bit on the hyperbolic side. That happens when you get surprised by something. You want to share your enthusiasm as broadly as possible. Hereditary won't cure cancer or be your favorite movie of the year, but it's the rare horror movie that is scary beyond a surface level and that's just damn exciting.
One of the best things about this movie are the curveballs it throws at you. Just when you think you have a handle on what's going on something giant happens to completely change the direction you think it's going in, which means you're always on your toes until the film finally tips its hat and the real awful shit finally starts happening.
I don't want to tell you too much about the plot, but I will say that the film stars Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense, Krampus, Muriel's Wedding), Gabriel Byrne (End of Days, Stigmata, The Usual Suspects) and younger actors Alex Wolff (My Friend Dahmer, Patriot's Day, The Naked Brothers Band: The Movie) and Milly Shapiro (Tony winner for Mathilda) as the main family at the forefront of the story.
At the start of the movie their grandmother has just died. Collette's character's mom was senile, suffered from dementia and was apparently pretty damn mean in her life. Also super creepy.
Most of the family is a little on the creepy side, to be honest. The teenage son (Wolff) is morose and distant, the young daughter (Shapiro) draws odd pictures seems to have some developmental issues that frame her as an outsider, the mother (Collette) is an artist that makes truly disturbing dollhouse dioramas and the dad (Byrne) is... I guess just dull. He's almost a blank slate. He's nice, obviously caring, but almost a non-entity in the household.
The very beginning of this film suggests that the dearly departed creepy grandmother might or might not have had some kind of connection to the occult. We do know that the family has a long, dark history with mental illness. Alzheimers and schizophrenia have run rampant in the immediate family, so when creepy stuff starts happening you're left to wonder if there is a supernatural reason for it or if Collette is starting to lose it as she grapples with guilt and grief after the death of her mother.
Writer/Director Ari Aster makes a splash with this movie. His visual style at first seemed to be a bit showy, with camera moves I thought were unmotivated... I'm used to first time filmmakers overcompensating and going crazy with their camerawork, which sometimes makes it feel like the director is making sure you know someone is directing at every moment instead of actually just telling the story. So the first 10 minutes had stuff that I thought was first time filmmaker jitters, but when the story became clearer I realized he was using his camera work and at times stilted blocking to lay tracks for what was to come and to set a particular tone that starts out subtle and grows more and more intense until you get to the flat out edge of your seat, fingernail chewing final 20 minutes.
It's has a smart script, is well-directed and Aster gets some killer performances from his cast. Collette runs through a gamut of emotions here and Aster really lets her shine. Milly Shapiro is great at pulling your empathy while also realizing some crazy, off-putting shit is going on with her character and Alex Wolff is flat out incredible here. They put this poor bastard through the ringer emotionally and he just kills it.
The only one of the cast I felt came off as flat was Gabriel Byrne. His character is so vanilla that it feels like they wasted someone as charismatic as Byrne in this part. Don't get me wrong, he's not bad in the movie I just felt like the character was a bit underbaked, especially considering just how much red meat material all the rest of the family gets. It's important that someone tries to stay grounded and be the glue that keeps the family together, but it felt to me like he was the person the story was least interested in and he just got skimmed over as a character.
But ultimately that's a nitpick. It doesn't hurt the movie much at all and it's still Gabriel Byrne so there's at least a likability there.
I dig Aster's horror sensibilities. In crafting this tale he seemed to pick and choose tonal elements from some of my favorite forms of genre storytelling. There's a little cult panic a la Rosemary's Baby in there, there's a touch of slowburn '70s horror like The Exorcist and there's more than a pinch of some of the creepy slow reveals that J-horror did so well before it burned itself out.
The end result is a truly scary movie that will force images into your head that will threaten to pop up when you're home alone at night and the shadows are deep and dark and just quite possibly hiding an endless stream of unspeakable horrors.