Reports from the festivals, particularly Cannes, have Hereditary painted as “this generation’s The Exorcist”. I made a vow that apart from the trailer I wouldn’t buy into any of the hype and, for the most part, I was successful. It doesn’t help that the afore-mentioned ‘Exorcist’ comparisons now happen to be splashed across buses and billboards the world over.
So does Hereditary live up to the hype – whether you’ve bought into it or not?
Yes. And no. This review will remain spoiler free, but the basic premise involves a death. The movie opens with the obituary of Ellen Graham, beloved mother and grandmother. A refreshing spin on a familiar opening gambit, we get to meet the Graham family as they don’t exactly mourn Ellen’s passing. Mom Annie (Toni Collette) wonders whether she should be crying more, whilst son Peter (Alex Wolff) is equally as indifferent to her passing, more interested in getting stoned and chasing girls than shedding tears over his grandma. We come to discover this is due to the fact that Ellen spent much of Peter’s childhood estranged from the family. She did, however, bond with 13 year old Charlie, played by the unique and striking Milly Shapiro. Anybody who has seen the trailers will recognise Charlie’s face, as she has been by and large painted as the centre piece, a sinister, odd-looking child who could very well turn out to be the villain at the heart of the movie. But to say some surprises are in store would be an understatement.
Hereditary excels in its slow-burn, scabrous view of the family unit. Through some surprisingly clunky exposition we get the lowdown on the Grahams’ trials and tribulations through the years in one fell swoop. Those looking for red herrings, twists and turns might want to be poised pencil in hand during this moment, where Toni Collette gives a harrowing performance whilst grappling with force-feeding the audience a ton of information. The motif of the dolls’ houses played up in the trailers is similarly utilised to full effect throughout the film. Ellen is an artist who paints her biography in scale models of her home, her history, and the most harrowing moments of her life before and throughout the film’s timeline. In laying its foundations with a slow paced introduction and exploration of the wounded family dynamics of the Grahams, before letting them have it full force with a series of nasty surprises, those ‘Exorcist’ comparisons seem justified.
But whilst the movie scales giddy heights and plums murky depths in its depiction of very human horror – the destruction of an already fragile nest via intense grief and suffering – its handling of classic horror tropes left me a little cold. Seasoned horror fans will see the reveals coming a mile off. I won’t reference the movies that have told similar stories better for fear of spoiling the plot. But as I enjoyed that gradual build of dread and terror and cowered gleefully at some pretty nifty tricks of the light, I found that the smoke and mirrors did not herald the horrors I’d hoped for. So in that sense, Hereditary falls just short of the hype.
The performances are solid. Toni Collette is raw and heartbreaking – although I found her too emotionally articulate for somebody suffering such extreme trauma. On the downside Gabriel Byrne was underserved as dad Steve, who whilst sensitively portrayed as a man struggling to keep a crumbling family together, simply dissolved into the background a like some of the apparitions that appear as the film progresses. Ann Dowd, who brilliantly evokes sadism and self-loathing as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, is another highlight as grief-groupie Joan.
So the story, as it reveals itself, is nothing new. And personally I have seen it done more effectively elsewhere. But as a horrifying and unflinching examination of grief, loss and the utter desolation of a family under fire from forces both inside and out of the spiritual realm, Hereditary hits the mark.
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