Friday Film Review - "Hereditary"

Jun 22, 2018

Credit Ola-ola / KPCW

The horror film "Hereditary" played last January at the Sundance Festival. Now in general release, it's showing that it can raise chills from an audience even in the summer. Rick Brough has this week's Friday Flm Review.

It’s always great to discover a classic at the Sundance Film Festival.  

It happened this year with a showing of “Hereditary." Afterward in the Q and A, the writer-director Ari Aster  appeared awkward and tongue-tied.

This is amazing, because this first-time feature shows a confident  film-maker who knows exactly what he wants   to present  in terms of character, performance, sights, sounds and well-timed scares.

The film opens with the funeral of a family matriarch.     In her eulogy, her daughter Annie (played by Toni Collette) confesses that her mother was intimidating, strange, was into spiritualism, that Annie never knew how to cope with her—and probably still doesn’t.

Oh, and by the way, in her workshop later, she sees Mom’s ghost lurking in the hazy blackness.

It’s only destined to get worse, and stranger, for Annie, her husband and two teenage chidren.   

Aster shows us the emotional and mental breakdown of the family.    It’s a nice update on Henry James’ ambiguous ghost story “Turn of the Screw”.     Are the spooky  events  just imagined by a  family with  a heap of psychological baggage?   Or is it the reverse—a satanic conspiracy has found fertile ground to grow due to the family’s warps and dysfunction.

At the center of the film is a stunning performance by Collette.     A tightly-wound character with a tendency to sleepwalk, she can suddenly spew like a firehose with emotion or Too Much Information.     Collette is even skilled enough that her freak-outs are slightly funny.

Annie’s  avocation is creating  little table-top dioramas of domestic life—and as the movie goes on, the scenes become auto-biographical, with the sinister suggestion that if you could just look close enough, something might be revealed.

The husband Steve, Gabriel Byrne gives a wonderfully  subtle performance as the calm, concerned dad presiding over a nuclear family—who doesn’t  expose how hard he’s trying to keep a lid on things.

Teenage son Peter (played by Alex Wolff)  is a high-schooler mostly occupied with bongs and cute girls.     But then the guilt of a freak tragedy falls on his shoulders.  And he begins to crack, wondering what his role in the family is—or even worse, what his future might be.

And there’s little sister Charlie (played by Millie Shapiro) a weird, quiet child prone to tongue-clucking noises and occasionally cutting the heads off dead birds.    Let’s just say this.   If the twin girls from the Shinging had a cousin who creeped even THEM out, it would be Charlie.

There are weird lights, fires, strange numbers or words carved in the background, a treehouse that might be as iconic as the Bates Motel, and one more memorable performance—Ann  Dowd as a pushy, maybe-too-likable stranger.

One added bonus is that the film was made at the Utah Film Studio and around the Wasatch.   (Re-watching the film this week, I realized one significant scene  was done in the studio’s parking lot.)

Although a few grisly images turn up, this is a film that creeps you out; it doesn’t gross you out—in the Sundance tradition of Blair Witch Project or “It Follows.”

I would give Hereditary five goose bumps out of five.   For the Friday  Film Review, sponsored by the Park City Film Series, I’m Rick Brough