Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ari Aster
Screenwriter: Ari Aster
Cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 5/31/18
Opens: June 8, 2018
In his debut feature, Ari Aster—known for shorts such as “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” which is a dark family melodrama—graduates into a full length picture that goes beyond mere melodrama into the realm of horror. But “Hereditary” is not a simple slasher movie like the “Friday the 13th” series but is instead for a discerning crowd. The film will draw people who do not need to see scenes of killings, each one occurring within five minutes of the other, all the cuts edited so quickly you can barely see what’s going on. Instead Aster is fond of long takes and intense close-ups, with patient buildups heading toward the inevitably concluding mayhem which is foreshadowed in a Hebrew inscription that fortells “pandemonium.”
While the story does not match up to the hype the film received at the Sundance Festival, its chief talking point is a stunning performance from Toni Collette in the principal role of Annie Graham, who lives in a wilderness home of undisclosed location (filmed by Powel Pogorzelski in Utah). Annie, who creates and paints miniatures, has a mild-mannered husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) who is the only normal person in the family, a teen son Peter (Alex Wolff), and Peter’s thirteen-year-old sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro). It doesn’t take long to see that something is wrong with Annie and her children, with Steve doing his best to contain the schizophrenic-type rages and impulses of the family, all of which come emerge in full bloom after the death of Annie’s mother Ellen. When Annie delivers a eulogy for her mother she appears anything but broken up, yet her miniatures depict scenes from her life as though she is intent on holding fast to her personal history.
Yet this obsession with her recent past is based not on pleasant memories of her upbringing but with a feeling she cannot shake off that something was strange about her mother, something relating perhaps to the older woman’s belonging to a cult along with Joan (Ann Dowd). John, despite her neighborliness and support for Annie, appears to have supernatural powers to communicate with the dead. As though these were not problems enough, Annie must deal with her young daughter’s antisocial behavior and strange appearance and we in the audience catch a whiff of the thirteen-year-old’s macabre activities when she slices off the head of a pigeon that had died when crashing into a building.
The story takes a grisly turn when Peter, forced to take his kid sister to a school party, must deal with a sudden medical emergency when her sister, having eaten some chocolate cake at the party, has an episode of anaphylaxis and must be rushed to a hospital. She doesn’t make it. What occurs at a series of séances should not be revealed but should be experienced first-hand by the audience, but don’t expect to be riveted by unbearable tensions unless you have the same outlook on this horror film as some of the attendees at Sundance.
The principal plus is the three-dimensional performance from Toni Collette, who goes from quietly painting her miniatures to a somewhat alarmed concern for her daughter’s awkwardness to an outright breakdown at a funeral and soon, one of the most chilling monologues you’re likely to see this year. Colin Stetson’s music does it best to ratchet up the tension but there’s little available here that’s memorable; perhaps nothing that will raise the kind of post-performance discussions so indelible in the horror greats like “The Shining,” “Carrie,” “The Exorcist” and “The Sixth Sense”—the last featuring an expertly crafted dinner between Olivia Williams and a missing Bruce Willis.
Rated R. 126 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – B