Hereditary is technically polished but slow paced, unimaginative, tense rather than terrifying, and far from the horror masterpiece critics are claiming it to be.
Critics have been gushing over Hereditary. Terrifying, they shriek! Bone-chilling! This generation’s The Exorcist! A modern-day horror masterpiece! So does the reality live up to the hyperbole?
Nah. Not even close. As for the masterpiece claims – oh, please. Hereditary can’t be mentioned in the same breath as bona fide horror classics that spring immediately to mind like, yes, The Exorcist, or Rosemary’s Baby or The Sixth Sense or The Orphanage… I could go on, but that’ll do (I’ve seen my share of horror flicks, having been a fan as a teenager and had a soft spot for the genre ever since, slasher flicks mostly excepted).
Quality horror is gripping from beginning to end, and seriously unnerving if not downright terrifying. And great horror films are believable within their own frameworks. We project ourselves into their worlds, are drawn into their atmospheres, and crucially, can relate to particular characters. Their plights seem real. Thus, we feel ourselves to be under psychic or physical threat, at least during the film, and in some instances stay spooked long after.
A case in point for me is The Exorcist. I saw it on release and it freaked the shit outta me. I have not re-watched it since, despite ranking it as the greatest horror movie ever made. I just can’t face the prospect of putting myself through that experience again. I fancy it would be like beaming an evil presence out of the TV and into the loungeroom. Why would I want to do that? Clearly, decades later, I’m still not over that first viewing!
Let’s put any comparisons between The Exorcist and Hereditary to bed right now. Hereditary is not frightening. It’s tense rather than scary – unrelentingly so. Eventually though, the tension wears you down, because not enough happens in the overlong, snail-paced middle section of the film.
There’s only so much sinister atmospherics you can put up with before wanting some payback. About 2/3 of the way through I realised the tension had given way to tedium. I was bored. There’s probably no greater indictment of a horror movie – indeed, any movie – than that.
Further, there’s little reason to invest in the characters in Hereditary. They do not “live” because they are not sufficiently developed. So we do not readily relate to them or care much about their fates. Toni Collette gets most screen time and throws herself into her role as always (to the point of overacting at times), but her character, Annie, a miniaturist artist, doesn’t have much to her. She’s volatile and difficult from beginning to end. We never really get to learn what makes her tick. Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is so slight he’s barely there at all! Their 17yo son Peter (Alex Wolff) is more fleshed out as a character than his stick figure father, but still there’s not a lot to him.
The standout is the youngest in the family, 14yo Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a strange-looking, habitually-chocolate-bar-munching, tongue-clicking weirdo who is the film’s creepiest asset. At school, for example, she cuts off and pockets the head of a pigeon that has killed itself flying into a window. Unfortunately, she is vastly under-exploited. She’s by far the most mysterious and intriguing character in the film, but no effort is made to let us beneath her surface. An opportunity missed.
Instead of setting the story around the strongest character, debut feature writer/director Ari Aster pursues a far less imaginatively taxing and derivative direction, the story progressing along a largely unsurprising route from the initial set-up. Annie’s overbearing mother has just died, triggering a series of spooky events in the family home that suggest the old girl is not “at rest.” Add a few stock ingredients to the brew – demonic possession, séances and supernatural goings-on – and you have the basic recipe. It’s pretty stock standard stuff.
Technically, the work is polished, which saves it from complete mediocrity. There is some terrific cinematography. And the tension builds well before plateauing, with a spare, sinister soundtrack contributing an atmosphere of foreboding throughout.
However, the production values do not compensate for the ho-hum storyline, neglectful characterisation, slow pacing and excessive running time (the film is at least 20 minutes too long). And most definitely not for the risible ending that might have been brainstormed by a group of not-very-talented gothy horror-nerd first year film students re-working the conclusion to Rosemary’s Baby.
If you wanna see a contemporary slow-burn horror flick that’s genuinely unnerving, and a lot more deserving of the sort of extravagant praise that is being heaped on Hereditary, check out the far superior low-budget creeper It Follows (2014).
Movie Website: http://hereditary.movie/
Australian release date: Hereditary in Australian cinemas from June 7, 2018
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