Director: Ari Aster
I have very polemical opinions on horror, its appeal, and its purpose, and A24’s wheelhouse of atmospheric frights has historically left me cold. This year’s buzz-worthy genre darling, Ari Aster’s full-length debut had an unfair amount to live up to, due in large part to a formidable Sundance hype cycle (then again, what Sundance darling doesn’t?). Do I think it managed to hit the mark? Let’s put it this way: it would be ignorant to claim that HEREDITARY is anything other than a high-water mark for whatever post-post-genre wave we’re in the middle of, a confident and assured example of a fully realized artistic vision. But even if you can appreciate it for what it is, how much you’ll enjoy it is dependent on just what exactly you’re looking for in a summer theatrical release.
The Graham family attends the funeral of Ellen, their recently deceased grandmother. With Annie (Toni Collette) giving a difficult speech that makes reference to their strained relationship, there doesn’t seem to be much love lost between Ellen, her son-in-law, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and grandson, Peter (Alex Wolff). The only one that truly seems to be shaken up is the family’s youngest, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), an odd child with an unsettling vocal tic and a penchant for the macabre. Realizing that Charlie is socially struggling after Ellen’s passing, Annie pushes her to attend a party with Peter, where a shocking event occurs. In the aftermath, we slowly but surely come to realize that there was much more to Ellen than meets the eye.
Mfw the office La Croix stash is depleted
The general conceit and narrative structure of HEREDITARY are archetypal. Ultimately, this really boils down to a “haunted house” flick. But as mentioned above, if nothing else, the film is an impossibly strong step forward for Aster, as ripping out of the gates with this distinct of a “written and directed by” credit makes hailing as a potential auteur both easy and obvious. First and foremost, the film looks fantastic, with a sumptuous color palette featuring an unexpected amount of warmth and an innovative sense of composition, often positioning the Grahams amidst their house like the miniature figures Annie paints, occasionally even bringing to mind a morbid spin on Wes Anderson. No less impressive is the slick, broiling sense of tension Aster is able to (mostly) cultivate throughout, with a churning queasiness that’s certainly bolstered by Colin Stetson’s teeth-grinding soundtrack but not beholden to it. Rounding out the hat-trick is his clearly demonstrated command of the directorial process, as Toni Collette gives what is perhaps a career-defining performance, Alex Wolff crossing the finish line as no slouch either.
At large, there is a burgeoning shift away from explicit and streamlined terror in horror to a more nebulous development of dread, and HEREDITARY fits this modus operandi to a T. Though it’s a bit hard to initially reconcile the expectations of an unrepentant screamfest with the more ponderous, subtle layering of emotional trauma that we’re treated with, Aster’s sublimation of the core elements of horror into the deterioration of a grieving family is initially clever and mature. It’s a shame, then, that the film takes a notable whiff in its latter half by attempting to hurriedly cobble together plot elements desperately beholden to the studio-horror structures of yore. To put it bluntly, I found the conclusion to the film almost laughably dumb, an awkward attempt at injecting lore into something that deeply and truly did not need it, a last-minute hurrah for the stylings Aster so successfully avoided.
WISH YOU WERE HERE, Pink Floyd, 1975
But even if it can manifest itself in a mildly frustrating way, HEREDITARY does consistently surprise when it comes to just what kind of horror film it strives to be. I always avoid trailers for horror films as they load in every jump scare in the final cut and even a few that get left on the floor, but you’ll really be left hanging out to dry if you try to keep up with the marketing for this one, as the suspense and confusion as to what’s really going on in the Graham household is the well from which the film drinks most heavily, and the disturbing images which constitute its most valuable currency are mostly given away. But the surprises don’t come solely from the actual presentation of the plot: things are remarkably unpretentious, with several of the catalysts to key plot points being explicitly and emphatically stated, a bit of a refreshing antidote to the oeuvre of other A24 darlings such as Osgood Perkins. Hell, you could even call a particular visual effect that gets employed cute, a weirdly earnest spin on representation of the supernatural that would’ve been laughed away in the heyday of grim and gritty studio juggernauts.
But for all intents and purposes, this isn’t really a horror film that invites communal appreciation. Far removed from the flawed but earnest spookhouse fun of something like IT, Aster’s baby suggests it’s best consumed alone, where the scenes of bald-faced emotionalism can register more as genuinely terrified than humorously overblown and the steadily encroaching dread feels all the more frightening for it. I personally think the joy of horror is fundamentally tied with heading into the theater with your friends as a safety net, holding your breath and hurriedly laughing to mask the moments of fear. I will admit that it’s a stupid term, but if “post-horror” is doing anything, it seems to be lessening the impulse to let your hair down and have fun with these films, progressively insisting more and more that you carefully consider their merits as art and Cinema with a capital-C. I can’t make the emphatic claim that it’s bad yet, but it is distinctly different, and at least for the moment still has some growing pains to get through. I think it’s fun to be scared. I don’t necessarily think it’s fun to be immersed in dour atmosphere for 120+ minutes.
I left the theater a little more vitriolic than I come across here, because once you step back, it’s clear as day that Aster is moving with direction and purpose at every step of the way, and that’s something to be applauded in a genre inundated with no-name workmen directors looking for a quick buck. No matter how you slice it, it’s a self-fulfilling hypocrisy to both complain about a lack of innovation and quality within horror and cry foul when the genre shapeshifters don’t play ball with our preconceptions. HEREDITARY has its misfires, but it never completely falls off the track, and if you go into it not expecting to be titillated, it’s much easier to meet halfway. A part of me is still concerned that legions of wispy film school brats with philosophy minors will undoubtedly be inspired by fare like this, but HEREDITARY is nothing else than a firecracker of a first entry.