Ari Aster doesn’t give a shit about jump-scares, and neither should you.
Deemed by the press as both one of the year’s best horrors (move over, The Strangers: Prey At Night) and a 21st-century contender to William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist, it’s pretty hard to ignore the buzz circling Ari Aster’s A24-backed debut Hereditary. It is, without doubt, a totally searing piece of work – a heady mess of disturbed batshittery that’s guaranteed to hang around the backends of your brain for quite some time to come. But all that definitely comes at a price, and it’s one hardcore genre fans might not welcome as much as others.
Hereditary is just about as moody as horror gets, grounded in a genuinely troubling sense of creeping dread that very quietly burrows under the skin, while your brain is elsewhere.
Plot-wise, it’s a simple, somber affair; a grieving family starting to fall apart at the seams. Aster keeps it almost totally all relative, and paces the brunt of the film around mysteries that start to unearth themselves fairly early on, so there’s always plenty to chew on. Events occur, characters develop, but there’s always this creeping suspicion that it’s all just for show. That the real horror is just off-screen, waiting to make its entrance.
Aster shows us the troubled family politics – Toni Collette’s revelatory broken mother; Alex Wolff’s numbingly wayward and forgotten son; Milly Shapiro as his positively clucking younger sister – but only, really, as a way to fuck with us. While you’re investing hard in the difficult upbringings and confused emotions, trying to piece together the parts of the family history before it slaps you cold in the face, the real horror is seeping in around the sides.
Hereditary soars highest when it’s at its most frameless; it doesn’t set up any in-film rules, or build much into the world it’s very quietly creating. Aster rarely signposts anything, using that mumbling tone of dread as the drumroll, so he can let each and every curtain-drop very much speak for itself.
Visually speaking, his bag of tricks is decidedly small. There’s plenty of neat in-camera turnarounds, and that now trademark A24, Insta-friendly indie vibe soaks into the woodwork very nicely. But so much of that all important dread exists inside just the framing alone. Those much maligned “vintage”, Shining-style steadycam oners, and long, expressive wides pretty much take on the tone alone, giving the core cast all the room they need to breathe too. The result is something that echoes Kubrick and Friedkin, but also the likes of the recent barnstormer It Follows; a film that is constantly and consistently uncomfortable to watch.
And in spite of these high-ranking horror comparisons, regulars of the genre shouldn’t expect more of the same; there’s no real jump scares, no gangly monsters and not an awful lot of classical spookiness here either. It’s not a fun watch; you won’t laugh with your friends about how jumpy you got. Aster’s going straight for the jugular. He’s not aiming to entertain, he’s trying to very deliberately unravel your psyche, and make the whole experience as distressing as possible.
It’s a phenomenal piece of work, but not one that’s easy to bask in, and a lot of those seeking the usual horror staples brought from recent marvels like A Quiet Place will be surprised by just how much Hereditary is likely to bother them.
Hereditary was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival: London.