The year’s scariest movie is back to haunt your Blu-ray player. You’ve been warned.
Anew generation’s The Exorcist,” screamed the poster quote, spinning heads, or at least raising eyebrows. It’s easy to see why the claim was made. Writer-director Ari Aster’s full feature debut deals in a family splintering apart; it dabbles in the occult; and it’s deeply distressing, proving itself to be not above utilising genre clichés to tauten both plot and viewers’ nerves. But mostly, it’s interested in the really scary stuff, like psychological trauma and emotional damage.
More than The Exorcist, though, Aster’s touchstones are Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now and The Shining, movies that explore mental illness as much as grief, rage and guilt. In fact, Kubrick’s ghost hovers in the corner of each meticulous composition, while the deep-cutting domestic drama at play is prime late-’60s/early-’70s Ingmar Bergman.
We meet the Graham family – mum Annie (Toni Collette), dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff)
and younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – on the day of granny Graham’s funeral, and only as the film precisely, painstakingly unfurls do we realise just how much damage this abusive woman has done.
Attending a bereavement group, Annie begins to talk of her late mother and suddenly the pain and the fury are contorting her features, even as self-incrimination twists her face in new directions. Her expressions are so volatile, it’s as if she’s possessed… which is fitting, given it’s not long before the Ouija board is out.
If The Shining implies the ghosts might be projections of Jack Torrance’s demons, Hereditary suggests anguish can be passed down in DNA until an entire family is haunted. The cast, uniformly excellent with Collette just sensational, sell it, and Aster has tricks up his sleeve to deepen the distress: day turning to night like someone’s flicked a switch; a sharp left-turn in the narrative that induces not just whiplash but unshakeable existential terror; and a knack of framing rooms in the house and the inhabitants within them like they’re tableaux in a doll’s house.
Annie, you see, is a contemporary artist who recreates scenes from her own life in miniature toy houses. But when Aster does it, the feeling, inescapable, is that these characters we care about are at the mercy of some greater power.
Elevated horror? That term is used by snobs who don’t know their horror history. But Hereditary is a towering addition to the genre. Jamie Graham
The divisive ‘pineapple with savoury food’ debate had got ugly again…