Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Bryne
When you watch as many films as I do, you make peace with the Indian censors. I have come to understand that like life, our Board of Film Certification, is arbitrary and often ridiculous. But every once in a while, their random cuts render a film so unsatisfying that I fly into a frustrated rage. Ari Aster’s masterful Hereditary is one such example. The climax has been so brutally butchered that I wanted to immediately run to Torrents and see if the film is available there. For the record – I didn’t do it, settling instead for explanations on the internet.
But despite this, Hereditary is a must-watch. Aster described it as Rosemary’s Baby meets Ordinary People. It’s a slow burn horror film that works at two levels – familial and supernatural. Incredibly, the supernatural element is less gripping because beyond a point, how seriously can you take witches and demons? But the familial drama taps into deep anxieties.
Aster sets up the mood from the first frame. The film begins with a death announcement and foreboding music. At the funeral, Annie describes her dead mother, as a woman with secrets and rituals. Afterward, she asks her husband if she should feel sadder. Annie is grappling with grief, her complicated, conflicting emotions and a history of mental illness – her father starved himself and her schizophrenic brother committed suicide. Given the film’s name we have to ask, what has Annie inherited?
Annie is an artist. She creates dollhouse-size models of her own house and life in painstaking detail. Like her, Aster directs with absolute precision. The first hour is slow but unsettling. There are signs that things are not quite what they seem – especially with their daughter Charlie. She is mostly silent and incredibly unnerving. At one point, she calmly cuts a bird’s head. She also makes this odd clicking sound with her mouth. Believe me when I say that eventually that sound will make you scream.
I watched many scenes with half-shut eyes – I always think that if I do that, somehow, I will be less scared and more in control of my responses. Hereditary is truly terrifying. But this film doesn’t work in that easy jump scares way that a Conjuring does. The dread and anxiety function at a deeper level. The horror is psychological. The relationships are so emotionally raw that they become frightening. There is a traumatic accident followed by a family dinner that will scar you.
Hereditary has strong performances by Gabriel Byrne playing the supportive husband, Alex Wolff as the withdrawn teenage son and Milly Shapiro as the disturbed daughter. But the anchor here is Toni Collette as Annie. She is vulnerable and layered but in places, also unsympathetic and scary. She plumbs despair with a frightening accuracy. The score, by saxophonist Colin Stetson, ensures that even in the most benign moments, we are infused with dread.
Be warned that the finale descends into mumbo-jumbo and the censor cuts make it worse. But Hereditary is a horror film that transcends its genre. Do watch, even if it’s through your fingers.