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Review: Hereditary – “Propels us through a towering family nightmare”

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From the opening shot, Ari Aster’s Hereditary signals its intent to take the viewer for a classy ride. Eschewing the usual bright-and-cheery-then-perturbing-then-sinister template so often deployed by horror these days, a slow pan around a modeller’s studio reveals a doll’s house. We slowly creep forward into one of the rooms which segues delightfully into the entrance of Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne). The mood is of steady dark intent, and Aster’s masterful direction displays a comfortable guiding hand throughout.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but plot-wise we join the story at the death of Annie Graham’s (Toni Collete) mother. Annie lives with her husband Steve, their stoner son Peter (Alex Wolff) and dysfunctional and quite creepy thirteen-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). It becomes apparent that the grandmother had quite an influence on Charlie’s upbringing, which laces the plot with an impactful, generational effect. To this end, the title is perfect.

From here on, a rich pantomime of horror staples (well-trodden although never tiresome) and inventive touches track the family’s descent into a Very Bad Situation.

Throughout, the Oscar-worthy Toni Collette, in particular, is outstanding. Overarchingly set in a rictus trap of grief, both her energy and range are magnetic. Collette must have been exhausted at the end of some of the scenes, her face an alternating mask of wracked angst, fear and terror as she struggles to deal with emotions far larger than she is. As her husband, Byrne is a steady and calm counterfoil to the histrionics. Milly Shapiro, too, is a terrific presence on screen. I just never want to be alone in a room with her.

The entrance of Joan (the brilliant Ann Dowd who plays Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale) as a spiritualist to help Annie through her grief prompts a tumbling Jenga tower of consequences. As Annie uncovers the reality of her family’s situation, I am reminded of the assured narrative journey of The Wicker Man. This is horror by intent, always leading us towards a well-foreshadowed destination, but the inexorable nature of the path is all the more horrific for it.

The scares, when they come, invoke platinum-level fear. Throughout the film, both the grief and frustrated lack of closure serve to stoke up the emotional richness to a point that the horror, when it comes, acts like throwing a lit match onto gasoline-soaked tinder.

There is no doubt that horror fans will lap up this Rolls Royce of a fright film, but stern-stomached newcomers to the genre should welcome it too. Despite a few rote conventions (sleepwalking, bad dreams), there are no random cats leaping out of cupboards, no jumps-by-sudden-loud-noises. The audio track is perfect for the film, and when you experience hairs crawling on your neck by the simple clicking of a child’s tongue in a daylight scene, you’ll know Hereditary has seized you without chance of escape, and are arm-locked towards the terrifying finale.

Any down points? Act two is perhaps a little long, and there is a subtle subliminal message about old folks being scary, but that’s about it. I just hope Ari Aster sticks to making this kind of film, we have a new horror hero in town.

A superyacht in horror terms. Rich and berthed full of ideas and interest, Hereditary propels us through a towering family nightmare.

Hereditary is in UK cinemas now.

You can read Francesco Cerniglia’s review here.

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