Advance buzz on Hereditary, the debut full-length feature from writer/director Ali Aster, promised us a new dimension in modern horror, an instant 21st century classic which would redefine the genre, make us all reconsider what we all think we know about horror filmmaking and just generally frighten the pants off its audience and give us sleepless nights and damp mattresses for months. Hmmm. A plethora of five-star reviews aside (we suspect some critics have been fed hallucinogenic drugs), Hereditary is very much a film of two halves.
The first fifty-odd minutes are a tense, taut and beautifully-realised examination of a woman torn apart by cataclysmic grief, a drama underpinned by a growing sense of dread thanks to Aster’s predatory camerawork - POV shots are frequent and uncomfortable close-ups proliferate - and Colin Stetson’s unsettling score (which includes a constant muted throbbing which might make you think that the sound is bleeding in from the neighbouring screen in your friendly neighbourhood multiplex). Yes, there’s some grisly business early on but that scene about which some nervy critics have screeched “you’ll never be able to unsee it!” really ain’t all that unless you’re a hardened myrmecophobic. Hereditary’s second hour, however, collapses into a frankly ludicrous and often quite laughable collage of horror movie clichés, the subtlety and understatement of the first hour thrown out of the window, the previously nuanced performances of the first-rate cast replaced by outrageous mugging, eye-rolling and bawling and a story which aches for the gravitas and potency of The Exorcist or The Wicker Man but instead stumbles into Carry On Screaming territory.
The real frustration that it all starts so promisingly. Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, a miniaturist artist whose work seems to reflect the truth of her own fractured life. She’s mourning her recently deceased mother, her emotions conflicted by the fact that they spent much of their lives estranged. Annie is devastated by another family tragedy - Collette gives a career-best turn in these harrowing, hopeless sequences - but a chance meeting with Joan (Ann Dowd) at a grief support group leads Annie down a dark path and, even worse, derails and devastates an otherwise quietly smouldering and disconcerting character study of a family ripped apart by tragedy and terrible unspoken secrets. Joan tells her that she’s made contact in the spirit world with her own deceased grandson and sets up a séance to enable Annie to contact someone she’s lost. But it turns out that this is a restless spirit which has become murderously violent and malevolent.
It’s here that Hereditary becomes a car crash, resorting to hoary old twaddle involving séances, glasses moving on their own (shriek!), demonic possession, dead people lurking in the shadows, horrible nightmare visions, bangs, crashes, strange lights and any number of cheap and cheesy jump scares. Hereditary speaks with the language of lowbrow horror when it’s been setting itself up as something a little classier and a lot more original. Nonsensical as much of the last act is - and it really, really is - it’s clear that Aster understands the mechanics of the horror movie but it’s equally clear that here he’s running before he’s learned to walk, setting out to make a game-changer out of the gate instead of earning his spurs in something a little less over-wrought and eager to please. But despite the fact that the film absolutely falls apart (Collette’s performance becomes toe-curlingly over-the-top and you’ll want to slap Alex Wolff as Annie’s son Peter who spends his time howling and dribbling like a baby) there are more than enough striking moments and images here to suggest that Aster knows his way around the genre and has a decent grasp of storytelling. It’s a shame that despite the garlands and the kudos it’s receiving elsewhere, Hereditary loses its way and its nerve so spectacularly and, in the end, is something of a bitter disappointment given the hype and the false promises.
HEREDITARY / CERT:15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: ALI ASTER / STARRING: TONI COLLETTE, ALEX WOLFF, MILLIE SHAPIRO, GABRIEL BYRNE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 9 out of 10