Sunday 17 June 2018

Hereditary (USA 2018: Dir Ari Aster)

Horror films SHOULD NOT BE TWO HOURS LONG. There, it's out there. Bit shouty but you get the point. Hereditary is actually over two hours long, and this is a drawback, as it is impossible to sustain the tension generated by the first half of a movie if said movie runs for 127 minutes. Mind you, if it had generated the tension of the first hour right the way through, it would be advisable for cinemas showing the film to revive those marketing wheezes of the 1960s by having a crew from St John Ambulance on standby to deal with fainting members of the audience.

So, being Ari Aster's feature debut as director, I'll be generous and assume that any mild sagginess at the movie's mid point is all about him giving the audience a bit of a breather, before things ramp up again for Hereditary's climax. And, like a Masterchef judge who initially slags off a beautifully presented dish knowing that they're really going to give it maximum points, for the things that Aster puts on the screen and how his superb cast of actors deliver it, it's well deserving of praise.

I've long thought Toni Colette has a face for horror (as witnessed in 1999's The Sixth Sense and even occasionally in the 2015 comedy horror Krampus) and she is note perfect as Annie Graham, an artist who, when we first meet her, is dealing with the death of her mother, a person she wasn't particularly close to, while being tolerantly supported by husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne). She's annoyed that her daughter Charlie (a miraculous debut performance from 15 year old Milly Shapiro) seemed to be her late mum's favourite, and this guilt, with a mix of feelings generated via bereavement, leads her to believe that her mother's presence remains in the house. Normally this would be sufficient content alone for a movie, but these events are just a jumping off point for the rest of the show (although the spoiler free policy of this site forbids me explaining much more).

Aster is rather guilty of throwing everything genre into the mix - seances, discovered books, a spooky attic - but there are so many great flourishes that this can be forgiven even if the sheer weight of parlour tricks slightly dilutes the impact of the movie's climax. And there's a refreshing lack of jump scares accompanied by thundering music. In fact the soundtrack by Colin Stetson is a haunted house theme ride all of its own, all shudders, clicks, whirrs and silences. Quite brilliant.

But I haven't mentioned Toni Collette for a while. Now 46, the actor's face is impossible to take your gaze away from. And that's because Aster spends a lot of time sticking it in your face with the audience watching her respond to the awfulness around her - a trick pulled off to the same effect in the recent mother! This is to some extent Annie's movie, as nearly all the events unfold via her experience or detection, and it's only right at the end that the action opens out - it's a shift in tone which again almost threatens to unseat the movie which has, up to this point, been a succession of things only partly glimpsed. Praise also for Milly Shapiro's performance - old beyond her years, her passive face nevertheless communicating a whole film's worth of fears and anxieties. Also excellent is Alex Wolff, playing Annie and Steve's son Peter. Wolff is also currently in Marc Meyers' My Friend Dahmer - which I confess to not having liked very much - but nothing prepared me for his searing performance in this movie. One scene in particular, if you see the film, will definitely haunt you for days.

Hereditary is a fright flick that has impressed me the more I think about it. Yes it has its flaws, but more often than not it hits the spot, and as a debut feature Aster should be congratulated for doing new things with some very old tools.

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