‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad,’ runs Philip Larkin’s famous poem. It’s a concept that runs central to Hereditary, the debut feature from writer-director Ari Aster, which has been racking up an unusual level of plaudits for a horror film over the past few weeks. Critics have been lining up to breathlessly declare it the scariest film of the year. But despite an intriguing first act and a reliably ominous atmosphere, this creepy but ultimately derivative film doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Things start well, as the camera zooms in on a miniature house, before transitioning seamlessly and unsettlingly into a scene which introduces us to our protagonists. The model house is the work of Annie (Toni Collette), an artist who specialises in miniaturism. Her household is an uneasy one, not least because her mother Ellen as has just died. As Annie admits at the funeral, her mother was a ‘secretive and private person’, with a legacy of past emotional abuse, and Annie is somewhat distressed to find that she is not as upset by her passing as would be expected.
More affected by grief is Charlie (impressive Broadway child star Milly Shapiro), Annie’s strange and compulsive preteen daughter, prone to odd clicking noises. The death of her grandmother makes Charlie suddenly aware of death, and she responds in troubling fashion, crafting odd totems out of toys and animal parts. Meanwhile Annie’s husband (Gabriel Byrne, wearing a hangdog look) tends to deal with problems (not least the mysterious desecration of Ellen’s grave) by trying to ignore or hide them. As for Annie’s son Peter (Alex Wolff, recently seen in My Friend Dahmer), on the surface he appears an oblivious teenage boy interested in little more than girls and weed, but it won’t be long before his own troubled relationship with his mother comes to the fore. The family’s superficial connectedness proves as artificial as Annie’s dollhouses, and simmering resentments and secrets lurk just below the surface.
The catalyst for the family’s implosion is a terrible event that constitutes the film’s most genuinely shocking moment – a sudden, horrifying jolt out of the blue that brought yelps from most of the audience at my screening, following by a lengthy, distressed silence. It’s one of the most memorable, powerful and disturbing sequences in recent horror film history. In the aftermath, grief, guilt and buried rage slowly begin to tear the family apart.
It’s this section which is Hereditary‘s strongest, boosted by a genuinely terrific performance from Collette, whose portrayal of a woman teetering on the edge may find itself receiving some recognition come awards season. Wolff too is something of a revelation, the former Nickelodeon star giving a convincingly broken performance as Peter’s terror and confusion increases.
As events in the household grow more and more alarming, Aster builds an almost suffocating sense of dread, aided by Colin Stetson’s pulsing, goosebump-raising score. Credit too to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, who sends cameras careening through windows, tilting upside down, and generally leaving the audience as disoriented as Hereditary’s characters.
But though Hereditary is consistently creepy and unsettling, it’s never as scary as promised; it’s tense, but rarely truly frightening. Comparisons to the likes of The Exorcist and The Babadook are not completely unjustified but while Hereditary shares similar themes to those films (particularly the latter, for which this would make a good companion piece) it fails to match them in terror. It’s not helped by a final act that veers into cliched, predictable and rather silly territory – at my screening screams were replaced by inadvertent laughter. The hype does Hereditary no favours, and horror aficionados are likely to leave a little underwhelmed.
It’s a shame because in many respects Hereditary gets a lot right. It’s an ambitious, atmospheric piece, and that central shock is destined to be talked about for years. This stylish well-crafted work bodes well for Aster’s future career. But ultimately, despite all the praise, despite all the build-up, Hereditary can’t quite bring it home.