June 2018

Arts & Letters

The elevated horror of Ari Aster’s ‘Hereditary’

By Shane Danielsen
This debut feature will test the mettle of even the most hardened genre fans

Certain fears are paralysing, insupportable – because they’re founded upon real-world forebodings, on outcomes either plausible or inevitable. (My mother and father will die; my wife or sister may have an accident, or fall ill.) And then there’s the other kind: a shivery, voluptuous terror that plays on our intimation of another world, whose existence we might sometimes sense but can never quite confirm. The uncanny. The inexplicable. The strange, terrible thing lurking just beyond the edge of our vision.

Hereditary (in general release June 7), the remarkable debut feature from American writer-director Ari Aster, begins in the first register – with the death of a parent – but soon shifts into the second. As the film opens, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is preparing to bury her mother, who recently succumbed to cancer. Their relationship was fraught – her mother kept secrets, harboured grudges – and Annie’s eulogy at the funeral is a model of filial evasion. (“She was … a very difficult woman,” Annie says, unsmiling. “Which maybe explains me.”) Listening, you sense a deep current of unresolved pain, something bitter and barely suppressed. Later, at the graveside, she begins to sob uncontrollably.

A few days after that, however, during a session at a bereavement-support group, Annie proves rather less circumspect, launching into a full-throated denunciation of the dead woman and detailing her malign influence on their family – a monologue so corrosive it could have been ripped from Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. Collette is never less than good, but this performance must rank as a career best. No actor, I think, portrays weariness better onscreen, the sense of one exhausted by the simple bullshit of daily life. With her flat, defiant stare, her downturned mouth, she looks painfully aware of the absurdity of society in general, and families in particular. As if she’s seen through everything, every cheap piety and squirming equivocation, and found them all equally despicable.

Annie, a visual artist, is married to Steven (Gabriel Byrne), a psychiatrist whose own inner life seems not so much circumscribed as curdled. Likewise their relationship, which is perfunctory at best. They have a moodily withdrawn teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and a daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a strange, solitary little girl, the reason for whose slightly remote, haunted air becomes apparent when we realise that she is haunted. As in: she sees the dead. Before long, Peter will perceive them too. And then he’ll begin to exhibit signs of possession, taunting his mother with unusual venom – to which Annie responds in kind, dismaying husband and daughter alike with her ferocity. A medium is called; the dead are summoned. And slowly the two worlds, the temporal and spectral, begin to converge.

To go into more detail about the film’s plot is to risk spoiling its many surprises, which – I feel duty-bound to point out – range from the satisfying to the actively distressing, moments which one might prefer to file away in a little box marked THINGS I DEARLY WISH I HAD NOT SEEN. Watching Hereditary is about as harrowing an experience as I can recall at the cinema: implacable in its pacing, unsparing in its terrors. The basic set-up may be formulaic – a haunted house, half-glimpsed apparitions, journals filled with creepy drawings – but the execution is outstanding. Aster first made his name with two well-regarded shorts, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons and Munchausen, but neither hinted at the unerring assurance he displays here.

The key word, in the brief description above, is slowly. Unlike many debut filmmakers, too eager to impress, Aster takes his time: patiently laying out the family’s history, its network of deceptions and secrets and resentments – all the while dialling up the tension via a series of well-judged, escalating scares. (Though one sequence, occurring midway through the film’s first act, is guaranteed to test the mettle of even hardened horror buffs.) He understands that a fright devoid of context is meaningless, mere reflex, and so takes care to invest the viewer in the texture of the family’s daily life. The Grahams are comfortable, but not rich. Fond of each other, mostly – but also rancorous and jaded. They could be us, we realise. We could be them.

Directorially, Aster tends to favour wide and medium shots, and sometimes holds longer on a reaction than one would expect (or wish). Both decisions have an endistancing effect: we feel as if we’re studying rather than simply watching the characters, observing their interactions from some near but hidden vantage. But the point of this technique, this experiment in displaced subjectivity, only becomes apparent in the film’s final, revelatory moments, a coup de théâtre that clarifies its purpose with unsettling effect.

The film boasts some superlative technical contributions – from Pawel Pogorzelski’s hypnotic cinematography, all insidious pans and underlit surfaces, to a droning, atonal score courtesy of avant garde saxophonist Colin Stetson (whose New History Warfare albums have soundtracked much of my writing for the past year). But particular credit must go to production designer Grace Yun and art director Richard T. Olson, for one of Hereditary’s most understated but effective features. Annie’s art, you see, is of an unusual type: a kind of mixed-media sculptor, she crafts meticulous, doll’s house–like replicas of her own domestic spaces – as if able to fully comprehend her own life only when studying it from the outside. This plot device not only provides a memorable entry point to the narrative (via a bravura opening shot) but also carries over into the design of the Grahams’ house itself. Which is ever-so-slightly off: the fussy, impractical layout of furniture, the scale of rooms to the people and objects within them … it all feels subtly, unnervingly wrong. Like a doll’s house, in fact. And so, what would in another film represent a failure of design becomes in this one a key component of its mission. Which – just so we’re clear – is to scare the living daylights out of us.


I love ghost stories – in particular, the works of the late English writer Robert Aickman, with their shadowy ambiguities, their weirdly unresolved endings. (“Answers,” declared the author loftily, “are almost always insufficient.”) Yet I’m not a big fan of horror movies – in part because they’re usually not ambiguous enough, but mostly because they achieve their effects too cheaply. (You made us jump with that sound cue … so what? We’re animals: we react to loud noises.)

Far better, and more commendable, is the inexorable creep from the quotidian world into something nightmarish and barely comprehensible. David Lynch remains the exemplar of the form: the final hour of Twin Peaks: The Return, for example, ranks as one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. But in recent years there has been a rise in what’s come to be known as the “elevated horror” movie – an odd, hybrid beast that encompasses films such as Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, the 2014 Austrian drama Goodnight Mommy (a film I dismissed at the time, but which has since grown steadily in my estimation) and, most recently, John Krasinski’s excellent A Quiet Place.

It’s telling, I think, that the thread linking all of these works is their emphasis upon parent–child relationships. It’s not simply that we’ll typically respond more to the prospect of a kid in peril; that’s too easy (and in Hereditary, at least, not the point). Rather, it’s that these filmmakers acknowledge that families are inherently flawed systems, riddled with emotional fault lines that may be exploited, either from without (by monsters or phantoms or what have you) or from within. The structure will shatter – no doubt about it. You just have to know where to tap.

Like The Babadook, Hereditary is actually a psychological drama of surprising acuity, cloaked in the bloodied vestments of a genre flick. Both films are about how interior states of mind – grief in this one, depression in Kent’s – might manifest in the physical world; each presents a female protagonist at the mercy of her own darkest impulses. But Aster’s film goes deeper, becoming in effect a kind of Greek tragedy – a case study in how certain houses are fated to be destroyed, and how destruction may be passed, like the curse of the Furies, from one generation to the next. (The clue, after all, is in the title.) Its ghosts are communicants of chaos, transmitting disorder from the dead to the living. The border between the worlds is permeable, the film assures us. Evil is real. A takeover is imminent.

What can be done, against such forces? For Sophocles, mortals were destined to suffer in perpetuity, badly overmatched as they were by fate and the gods. Given such lousy odds, his conclusion was simple, if somewhat discouraging: “Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best.” Annie, I feel certain, would concur.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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