"Hereditary" Scavenges Horror Classics For Parts

If the whole of “Hereditary” were as cleverly creepy as its opening shot, it might have sustained the hysterical cries of “new horror classic” from Sundance Film Festival attendees. Although there are memorable images to come, and a suffocating sense of foreboding that most horror films would kill for, writer-director Ari Aster’s feature debut is little more than a pastiche of classics. It rambles on for more than two hours, thumbing through genre touchstones like a drunk in a video store, serving up the occasional visual that sticks. Aster’s imagery is choice; his screenplay isn’t.

“Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Wicker Man” factor in heavily, with the film occasionally even evoking Neil LaBute’s infamous remake of the latter. That picture may have been lousy – loud, stupid, and woefully wrongheaded – but at least it was droll, liable to unite perplexed strangers in laughter in a darkened theater. “Hereditary” is nearly as impossible to take seriously but takes itself very seriously, breeding nothing but contempt for its characters and anyone who dares see through its arthouse veneer.

Toni Collette (“The Sixth Sense”) returns to the genre that yielded her first (and to date only) Oscar nomination, headlining as Annie Graham, a miniature artist and mother of two. Gabriel Byrne co-stars as her poker-faced husband Steve, Alex Wolff their high school aged son Peter, and Milly Shapiro their 13-year-old daughter Charlie. Annie’s eccentric mother Ellen has just died, leaving the family unsure of how to reconcile their complicated feelings toward the deceased.

The first act is in line with the film’s marketing campaign. Charlie is a vaguely disturbed child in the vein of many a horror pic, but her act of cutting the head off a dead pigeon is not the sign of modern take on “The Omen.” In fact, Charlie isn’t in much of the movie at all. Beyond foreshadowing, the character’s only purpose is to propel the increasingly bizarre story of a uniquely fucked up family into a tornado of grief.

If the screenplay is unsure of who its main subject is, Collette determinedly makes the project hers. Although a controversial denouement undercuts Annie’s importance to the narrative, Collette is more than a force of nature in the film; she’s an act of God. Her performance is expertly governed, modulated to the atmosphere and tone of each individual scene. If not for her, “Hereditary” would be up for grabs. Collette is the anchor it requires, and Annie’s journey from grieving daughter to grieving mother and beyond might well secure her second Oscar nomination.

But nearly everything around her moves as jerkily as a Rubik’s cube. Every time Collette seems to be on the verge of shouldering the narrative to the promised land, Aster reminds us of how literally we should be taking his movie, sapping it of any larger meaning. The writer-director’s use of miniatures is stunning; two occurrences of a middle-aged white man with a creepy grin pack a punch. But there’s nothing but nihilism beneath the pic’s floorboards. The climax is funny but not intentionally; its laughs come from how earnest the film is in its absurdities.

There have been far bolder, scarier movies about cults, some of them aforementioned. Aster’s film superficially pushes the envelope, intermittently going a little further than its forbearers were willing to go. But “The Wicker Man” is thirty-five years old, and substantial, to boot. “Hereditary” is spooky in fits and starts. It is also fundamentally empty.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: June 8, 2018
Studio: A24
Director: Ari Aster
Screenwriter: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne
MPAA Rating: R (for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity)