Can you think of a horror or thriller movie which has a completely engrossing and captivating first half, only to come undone by the end and leave you as disappointed as you were enthusiastic at the outset? A movie from a few years ago, Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman, comes to mind. It had a compelling set up and laid the ground work for a genuinely terrific mystery, but the payoff was pedestrian and unconvincing. Even so, I wouldn’t call Prisoners’ second half a giant missed opportunity. Unfortunately, I can think of no other way to describe the horror movie Hereditary’s latter portions—this, after a masterful beginning.
The writer/director, Ari Aster, is a first-time feature helmsman, and the movie seemed to play to appreciative critics and audiences at the Sundance Film Festival. I might have gone along with such alacrity at the commencement, but alas, the conclusion is too disappointing to merit overall kudos.
The story brings us into the world of the Graham family (Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne play mere and pere Graham) who live in a somewhat remote area of the Northwest. Collette’s Annie Graham has recently lost her mother, whom we are told led a secretive life and was not close to her daughter. A history of severe mental illness on Annie’s side of the family is also revealed.
Hereditary unfolds in a truly creepy and unsettling fashion, and the mood and tone of what appears to be a unique horror film grasps the viewer right away. These portions of the movie are clearly homages to The Shining, which also took place in a remote, mountainous, and rustic setting. It’s hard not to see the admiration Aster has for the Kubrick classic, offering us slow pans and zooms in addition to the unsyncopated music made so famous by The Shining. This does not include some of the open-mouthed expressions of horror characters exhibit in Hereditary, which also mirror personal moments of terror in The Shining.
Some might say these similarities detract from Hereditary, but I would disagree. Though the director clearly seems influenced by Kubrick, he is his own filmmaker and establishes a throwback haunted house set in the 21st century, and the entire world feels darkly authentic.
About thirty minutes into Hereditary, another death occurs, this one accidental. Mood had been the predominant factor at the outset, and the viewer might have been wondering what it all added up to, but with the death of Annie’s daughter (named Charlie and played wonderfully, as well as sadistically, by Milly Shapiro) a plot takes over.
For the next few sequences, we are thrown into richly thematic explorations of grief, guilt, mental illness, and other pathologies, punctuated frighteningly by the appearances of apparitions. We do not know if they are real or the product of the mind, and this is just as well.
Annie’s profession is miniature model building, and from time to time we see her at work on these highly detailed renderings of homes, hospitals, and other structures. The metaphor might be a bit too obvious but it is apt: she is a skilled craftswoman when it comes to exploring interiors, but her own interior is not neat, pat, or finely laquered: it is a blur of remorse, anger, and, possibly, psychosis.
I won’t detail all that happens in the second half of the film, but what does occur seems to slip away from the director, and Hereditary becomes something quite different than what it promised. If the first part was an inspired tribute to Kubrick, the second (especially the concluding sequence) feels like a heavy borrowing of Rosemary’s Baby. “Hail inexplicable endings!”
It’s worth noting where Hereditary falls in today’s cinescape of horror films. Setting aside, gore and slasher films where there is no redeeming value except the scare and a typically predictable and trite plot, horror-dom seems to have divided into two solid camps.
There is the high concept, Hollywood horror film with a strong hook. These are movies such as It Follows and A Quiet Place, in which the production value is high, the pacing relentless, and the concept paramount.
In It Follows, for example, a malevolent presence pursues and seeks to kill those who have had sexual encounters. To shake the demon, one must sleep with someone else and thus pass on the deadly taboo. The story is easy to understand but the ideas surface level. There is little desire to expound upon a dramatic purpose, and getting below the surface of the story is secondary. This does not mean these movies are not highly entertaining and expert pieces of craftsmanship: they often are. But they are, mainly, superficial.
The other category of horror film is the more independent, psychological effort. Here we have movies such as The Babadook or Personal Shopper. The pacing can be slower and the violence less explicit, but, most importantly, there is an effort to plumb a human foible via the medium of spirits and violence.
Where does Hereditary place on the spectrum? If you had asked me this question after an hour, I’d have said in the latter category, and I would have also said it was doing so brilliantly (thus the reason it seemed to fare well at Sundance). But then the movie began to unwind and became more plot heavy, with a story line that became hard to follow and a conclusion that simply did not work.
I’m giving this director a pass because he managed to create a chillingly authentic world to begin the film, and if he can gain a little more mastery in the writing department his next efforts will surely be more successful from decayed root to gnarly and ghostly branch.
Written and Directed By: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne
Running Time: 123 minutes
Blast Rating: 2 out of 4 stars