I had heard good things about HEREDITARY (2018), the new horror movie by writer/director Ari Aster, with some folks comparing it to last year’s hit GET OUT (2017), and so I was really looking forward to seeing this one.
Alas, after seeing it, I can’t say that I share this opinion. To me, it’s less like GET OUT and more like THE WITCH (2015) another critically acclaimed horror flick that for me simply fell flat and didn’t work.
That being said, there are parts to HEREDITARY that I really liked, but taken as a whole, the film didn’t do it for me.
HEREDITARY opens with an obituary. Which is as good a way as any to open a horror movie. From the obit we learn of the passing of the grandmother of the Graham family, and judging by the eulogy given by her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), she was a complicated and often demanding woman who wasn’t going to be missed in the traditional sense. After the funeral, Annie returns home with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13 year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) to the house which they shared with the now deceased matriarch of the family.
When Annie sees an apparition of her dead mother inside the house, she realizes she is more troubled by her mother’s passing than she has let on, and so she attends a support group for people who have lost loved ones, and it’s there through Annie’s testimony where we learn her family’s history of mental illness and the horrific events which took place because of it.
When more tragedy strikes Annie’s family, she struggles to hold both herself together and the rest of her immediate family, often appearing unhinged and unbalanced, which will leave the audience guessing, is what is happening due to undiagnosed mental illness or the supernatural?
If only the movie offered a satisfactory answer.
Again, there were parts to HEREDITARY I really liked.
The acting is off the charts good. Toni Collette knocks it out of the park as Annie, the mother who may or may not be dealing with her own mental health issues. The pain Annie feels over the losses in her family are among the most disturbing scenes in the movie. Collette brings this wounded troubled character to life, and there are a couple of scenes in particular where she is grieving that are almost too disturbing to sit through. In fact, you could make the argument that the best scenes in HEREDITARY aren’t the traditional horror scenes, but the dramatic ones. There are some truly powerful moments in this film that pack a wallop.
Gabriel Byrne is also excellent as husband Steve, the calm, rational father who offsets the high-strung Annie perfectly. It’s an understated performance, but it is just as effective as Collette’s.
The two teens are also superb. Alex Wolff is phenomenal as Peter, and his relationship with his mom is as pained and problematic as they come. Any parent of a teenager will relate to this dynamic. While there are obviously good days and bad days to raising teenagers, the scenes in this film capture perfectly the darkest days of the experience in scenes that are again way better than the traditional horror scenes. While Wolff’s performance here isn’t quite as good as his chilling performance as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in PATRIOTS DAY (2016), it’s still very memorable.
And Milly Shapiro does a fine job as Charlie, the daughter who was very close to her grandmother and most impacted by her death.
So, you’re not going to find better acting in a horror movie.
And the film really gets off to a good start. I really enjoyed the first half of this one, perhaps even the first two-thirds. It’s not until I realized that so many of the themes put forth here just were not coming together that things began to take a downward turn.
Writer/director Ari Aster presents us with an impressive canvas of themes to work with, especially for a horror movie. The opening shot after the obituary shows an intricate doll house, which is what Annie does for a living, design miniatures models, and the camera closes in on a miniature bedroom where we see a figure in bed which amazingly morphs into live action as we are introduced to Peter as he wakes up for his grandmother’s funeral. As opening shots go, it’s a keeper.
And it plays into a central theme of the movie, which is the debate of free will vs. fate. Do we have choices in life, or is everything that happens to us already predestined? This theme runs through the first half of the movie.
Then there’s the mental health angle. Does Annie suffer from mental health issues? Based on her behavior and on the information we learn about her family’s history, as well as the movie’s title HEREDITARY, the answer seems to be yes. In addition, the question must also be asked, what about the children? Do they suffer from mental health issues? Again, the answer could be yes.
On the other hand, the answer could just as easily be no because there are plenty of supernatural elements occurring in the story. For two-thirds of this movie, it does a good job keeping its audience off-balance with these questions.
One of the best scenes in the movie, if not the best scene, features a dinner table conversation between Annie and Peter, where dad Steve largely remains silent, and it takes place at a point where Annie seems the most unhinged. And yet when she loses it in the conversation and lashes out at her son, and at her entire family, saying that she’s sick and tired of no one in the family owning up to their actions and always letting the guilt fall on her, she actually makes a lot of sense, which throws the audience a curve, because here’s this character who seems unbalanced but yet her argument comes off as true and valid. And then Peter backs it up by once more not owning up to what he did and instead implying that what happened was his mother’s fault.
The real horror in this movie is the family dynamic. We see a family that comes off as very real, with little or no sense of wanting to harm each other, but through their actions can’t seem to do anything to bring themselves together. It’s a dynamic which is much more powerful than the supernatural parts of the movie.
Which is why the movie’s ending is so disappointing.
Ari Aster throws all these themes at us, and creates a compelling family back story, but then does little with it. The answers given here are simply not satisfying, and when the film makes the choice near the end to go full throttle towards the supernatural, it falls several notches. It simply takes away from what was shaping up to be a high brow horror tale.
The pacing is also dreadfully slow, and at two hours and seven minutes, that’s a long time to sit through a slow-paced movie. I didn’t mind as much during the first half, because the pace helped set the mood, but as the film went on, it seemed to grow slower and slower.
HEREDITARY also borrowed a page from the IT FOLLOWS (2014) playbook, featuring naked adults in creepy poses. It’s a thing that worked better in IT FOLLOWS than it does here.
There are parts to HEREDITARY that I definitely liked, as the first half of this movie held so much promise and offered so many possibilities, but it simply failed to deliver on these possibilities during its second half
As a result, HEREDITARY is a mixed bag. Its stylish and nontraditional horror style works for a while, but when it finally decides to shed some light on its questions and provide some answers, well, at that point, it simply becomes a little more traditional and a little less innovative.
I left the theater thinking, that’s it? That’s what the whole story was all about?
I think a better answer to the questions posed in this movie is that we are all predestined to act in a certain way based on our heredity and our family genes, and as such we are doomed to repeat our ancestors’ flaws, but that’s not the answer this film gives. Instead, it goes for another definition of hereditary: the right to a title based on inheritance, and in this case, that take is much less effective.
So much so that in several of the key scenes near the end, folks in the theater were laughing. Not a good sign for a horror movie.
You can do a lot worse than HEREDITARY. It’s ambitious and creative, well-acted and at times powerfully emotional, but you can also do a lot better. It throws a lot of themes at you but then fails to keep things tight. It meanders along and allows itself to lose momentum as it slowly creeps towards its disappointing traditional conclusion.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.
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