When Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary premiered in the midnight section at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, it was hailed as a game changer and one of the most terrifying movies ever made.
As film industry and review site IndieWire said, it “became the sort of instant sensation that makes careers overnight”, with audiences “jarred by the traumatic story” of a mother – played by Toni Collette – who is stressed out and pushed to the edge by her dysfunctional and decidedly odd family.
The hype has been huge.
Owen Gleiberman at Variety breathlessly compared it to genre champions Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, calling it a “freaky trance-out of a supernatural thriller” that brings art house aesthetics to multiplex horror.
Hereditary “takes the core haunting element of a spirit with a malevolent agenda and runs with it in a seemingly endless series of unexpected directions over two breathless hours of escalating terror that never slackens for a minute,” The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney said.
The hype has also been overhyped.
The movie looks fantastic, but it’s a far cry from scary. And at a touch over two hours, it meanders and sags into messy weirdness.
Let’s start with its strengths. Collette is undoubtedly brilliant in a raw, powerhouse performance which has drawn early calls for Oscars attention.
An introverted artist, Annie specialises in creating finely detailed, dolls house-like miniatures of her family and their spooky wood-panelled house in the woods.
They depict her twisted relationship with her late mother, chilly relations with her docile husband (Gabriel Byrne) and disconnect with oddball kids Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff).
Clearly damaged by the overbearing nature of her late mother, Annie’s eulogy at the opening funeral scene is cold as ice. Her mum’s things, including a bunch of books about spiritualism, are stashed away in boxes and her old room remains locked.
So far, so creepy. Shapiro’s unique looks and unnerving stare also mean she’s prime horror movie kid material.
From the very outset, this family isn’t quite right, and for the first half hour or so Aster admirably ramps up the ambiguous spooks.
Is there a dark force stalking the family through the generations, or are they just very messed up?
Hereditary is at its best when the truth is only teased, playing with the unexpected and ramping up ‘what the?’ moments, the most shocking of which occurs after dope-smoking Peter is forced, grudgingly, to take his dead bird-collecting sister to a house party. Bad move.
The startling aftermath of this sibling outing sets the plot spinning inexorably out of control. It’s also when the pace becomes tedious and when Aster increasingly indulges heavy-handed horror clichés.
Becoming increasingly silly, he squanders the well-constructed eerie mood without ever achieving psychological terror.
The insertion of Anne Dowd (Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale) as Annie’s grief counselling support group buddy with a thing for séances is where subtlety goes right out the window.
I found myself laughing at, not with, Hereditary’s hammiest horror moments, culminating in a truly awful ending that spells everything out and yet is still riddled with plot holes big enough to bury a desecrated body in.
If you really want to be freaked out by a twisted family psychodrama with a dark buried past inexorably resurfacing, try Polish director Jogoda Szelc’s unnerving Tower. A Bright Day now screening at the Sydney Film Festival.
Hereditary opens nationally on June 7.