Movie Review: Hereditary

This year’s big hit at the Sundance Film Festival, HEREDITARY, has finally made it to our shores just in time for… Hallowe’en? I guess we can say it came for Ghost Month because that festival officially ended on Monday and the film opened here last Thursday. But HEREDITARY isn’t quite the scary movie that it’s being hyped as. Weird and mysterious, yes, but scary? Not really.

In the film, Toni Collette (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE; THE SIXTH SENSE) plays Annie Graham, an artist who specialises in creating miniature dioramas and dollhouses. She lives in a beautiful home in the birch forests of Utah along with her psychiatrist husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne, THE 33; THE USUAL SUSPECTS), and their two children, 17-year-old Peter (Alex Wolff, PATRIOTS DAY) and 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro). As the story opens, Annie’s mother, Ellen, has passed away and Annie is giving the eulogy at the service. Annie comments that there are many unfamiliar faces in attendance but adds that her mother was very secretive and the two women were not very close in recent years. Later, at a support group, Annie reveals that a number of her family members had suffered from mental illness which resulted in their early deaths. Fast forward a few weeks and tragedy strikes the Graham family when Peter accidentally kills Charlie. Annie is completely bereft and thinks about returning to the support group when she meets Joanie (Ann Dowd, COLLATERAL BEAUTY; ST. VINCENT), an older woman who recently lost her son in tragic circumstances. The two strike up a mild friendship and one day, when Annie bumps into Joanie outside a shopping mall, Joanie tells Annie that she knows how to conjure up her son’s spirit. The two women go back to Joanie’s place where she successfully demonstrates her newfound ability to Annie. Annie, who is starting to grow increasingly erratic, decides to try it herself at home and she, too, is able to conjure up Charlie’s spirit. In doing so, though, Annie has put her whole family’s lives in jeopardy.

If you go into this film thinking you’re going to have the bejeesus scared out of you like THE EXORCIST or IT did, you’re going to be disappointed. HEREDITARY is not that kind of horror film as there’s barely a jump-out-of-your seat moment. Instead, the tension builds ever so slowly almost to the end… then it unfortunately jumps the shark a bit. But more about that shortly. This film is more of a psychological thriller in the vein of ROSEMARY’S BABY as we watch Annie unravel, and the effect it has on her family and particularly on Peter. Collette is absolutely superb in showing Annie’s growing psychosis. Her performance is certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination, though films of this genre are rarely recognised by the Academy for their acting.

Now about that shark: Without revealing anything, although the story explains the ending, the film doesn’t quite give it the time the audience needs to absorb it completely. I came out of the film scratching my head, wondering what I just saw. I know others have had the same reaction. It may just be the kind of film you need to see twice to figure it all out. Nevertheless, it’s a tremendous achievement for first-time director Ari Aster, who apparently loves this film genre. (His next feature, MIDSOMMAR, which is also a horror, is currently in production.) There’s not a wasted scene and every shot is meticulously framed. The sound editing is also fabulous. If anything will get you twitching in your seat, it will be the well-placed thumps, bumps and bangs.

Interestingly, critics are liking this film more than audiences are. I would say this is due to the film’s technical achievements and performances rather than the story itself. I’ll concede that it’s not up there with the classic horror films but, all in all, I’d say that HEREDITARY is a winner. Check it out… at least once.

Listen to the review recorded live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, September 13th at 8:30 am HK time!

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