The sins of the past are destined to repeat themselves in Hereditary, which is apt considering that the film is the latest heavily hyped Sundance horror hit to fall short of its deafening advanced buzz.
In the grand tradition of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Robert Eggers’ The Witch, writer/director Ari Aster’s debut (in theaters June 8) is a work of malevolent formal precision and mounting-hysterics performances, all of which combine to create an expert atmosphere of dawning dread and, later, supernatural madness. Moreover, as with those prior acclaimed releases, it’s an exercise in style and mood devoid of anything that might significantly raise one’s heart rate, much less serve as legitimate nightmare fuel. Prepare to wait… and wait… and wait some more to be terrified.
To be sure, when it comes to scary movies, everyone’s mileage varies. And as a lifelong horror junkie, I readily confess that my own calloused constitution for the grisly and the macabre is greater than most, sometimes to a fault. Still, no matter that nor the rapturous praise that’s preceded its premiere, Aster’s maiden feature employs meticulous design and lots of screaming to drum up only so-so suspense, convinced that creeping pans through constricting architecture and random suggestions of paranormal activity will put one on edge—or, at least, keep one engaged until the final five minutes, when all hell breaks loose. By the time that mayhem arrives, however, you’ll be forgiven for having lost interest in this patchwork-quilt concoction of ghoulish clichés and Toni Collette freak-outs.
[Spoilers invariably follow]
Collette, it must be said, does her best to keep Hereditary afloat through sheer force of will. Following a prologue obituary for Ellen Taper Leigh, recently deceased at the age of 78, we’re introduced to Ellen’s daughter Annie (Collette), who at the funeral has almost nothing nice to say about her dearly departed mom, a demanding woman fond of secretive “rituals.” While her speech resounds as a giant FORESHADOWING ALERT, Annie’s ensuing behavior is unhinged enough to muddy any initial guesses about where the material is headed.
Annie is on cordial (if detached) terms with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and she’s protective of her 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), whose facial features and socially awkward behavior suggest something is amiss. Strangely unmoved by her mother’s departure, Annie responds by burying herself in her work, which involves constructing miniature dioramas based on scenes from her life—an indication that she can’t let go of her ancestral history.
As it turns out, there’s good reason for that. Hereditary soon exposes all sorts of ugly truths about this seemingly stable domestic unit, including the fact that Ellen used to breastfeed Charlie, and that Annie, a habitual sleepwalker, once woke up to discover that she had covered herself and her kids in paint thinner, a lit match in hand. Not that the clan’s current circumstances aren’t also screwy, what with Charlie cutting off a dead bird’s head with scissors at her school and, later, experiencing visions of her beloved granny in a field near their remote home, lines of flame at her sides. It’s enough to drive a mom batty, which is precisely what happens to Annie, who when not discovering weird books about spirituality in her mom’s belongings, is befriending an eerily cheery woman named Joan (Ann Dowd) at the bereavement group she reluctantly attends to get her mom-related grief off her chest.
Things begin to fall apart after Peter is forced to take Charlie with him to a party where he hopes to score with a girl whose ass he stares at during class. Thanks to some imprudent bites of chocolate cake, food allergy-stricken Charlie requires immediate medical attention, and in a race to get her to the hospital, a tragedy occurs. Unfortunately, such parallels do little to create tension, in large part because Aster’s scripting often feels less intriguingly oblique than outright scattershot, and full of semi-related, thinly drawn plot threads. The more this family begins to spiral out of control, the more the film seems, narratively speaking, as if it’s been assembled not with the painstaking care that Annie shows her tiny models, but with the clumsier craftsmanship Charlie exhibits in making her twigs-and-branches-and-cloth dolls (themselves one of many tossed-off details).
Despite such murkiness, Collette is consistently riveting as a frazzled woman coming apart at the seams, and Wolff handles his own disintegration admirably. Aster, meanwhile, creates moderate foreboding by framing his action in hallways and doorways, and through circular pans around characters that are designed to amplify anticipation for forthcoming surprises. Colin Stetson’s score is also reasonably unsettling, notwithstanding the familiarity of its synthesis of sharp strings, deep bass, and squishy/squelchy/clicking sound effects. Even at its least frightening, the film is, from a technical standpoint, assured enough to deceive one into thinking that greatness—or, at least, a decent jolt—may be lurking around the corner, ready to emerge and break up the monotony.
Indulging in séances, candle-lit ceremonies, fake-out dreams, spooky sketches, and surging spirit-lights, Hereditary charts a conventional descent into wicked terrain, all of it embellished with the (mostly dull, and then silly) clucking noise that Charlie makes with her tongue. What it doesn’t do, however, is develop into something memorably unnerving, or thematically coherent. Aster touches upon issues of grief, resentment, fury, motherly domination, and the potential corrosiveness of legacies. Yet the longer his tale lurches about from one repetitive scenario to another—be it Peter losing it in a classroom, or Annie losing it in her workshop, or Steve losing it with Annie—the more one gets the sense that this Conjuring-esque grab bag of unholy incidents is feigning concern for those issues, while only truly caring about building toward a big climactic reveal.
That Hereditary does, in a finale that seeks to provide a framework (and explanation) for the preceding bedlam. Alas, it’s a too-little-too-late gesture, rendering the film a case study in both the perils of delayed gratification, and of prizing ominous aesthetics above genuine scares. Let’s hope its own progeny don’t follow in its footsteps.