Hereditary (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A creepy and insidious horror masterwork

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“Hereditary” is a creepy and insidious horror masterwork you have to see for yourself. Alternatively unsettling and harrowing in its unflinching depiction of an ordinary family under some eerie influence, the movie will disturb and then overwhelm you as pushing its story and characters as much as it can, and you will not easily forget its many scary moments as well as its palpable sense of dread surrounding its characters.

After its calm but unnerving opening scene, the movie slowly establishes the moody situation of its four main characters: Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their adolescent son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie’s aging mother recently died, and we see them attending the funeral along with other attendees, but we cannot help but sense the awkwardness from Annie and her family. When Annie talks a bit about her deceased mother in front of her family and others, she does not look that sad, and we are not so surprised to learn later that her mother was not so friendly with not only Annie but also other family members except Charlie.

However, as we watch Annie and her family trying to go on with their life in their house located in a remote forest area, it is apparent that they all are struggling with grief in one way or another. While Annie keeps focusing on a number of elaborate dioramas which are going to be exhibited in a gallery, Peter often lets his mind drifted in marijuana haze, and Charlie, a quiet, introverted girl who has clearly been disturbed in her mind, shows some unnerving behaviors including the one involved with a dead bird. As the most sensible member of the family, Steve tries to make everything look stable and normal around his family, but the mood in the house becomes more morbid and distant despite his well-intentioned efforts, and he is quietly frustrated as not knowing what to do with his troubled family.

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Meanwhile, Annie secretly goes to a group meeting for handling her grief, but it turns out that this group meeting does not help her much when something unexpected happens. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead that director/writer Ari Aster and his performers did a tremendous job of conveying to us the resulting grief and grudge in Annie’s family. As sensing more tension and awkwardness being accumulated beneath the screen, we come to hold our breath while dreading what may be erupted among them, and there are several emotionally brutal moments which are as raw, intense, and, uncompromising as the works of Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes.

While things become more unstable and uncertain among them, the movie also dials up the level of creepiness as suggesting something far darker which may be lurking around the screen. Evoking several well-known horror films such as “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “The Exorcist” (1973), and “The Shining” (1980), the movie gradually unnerves us more and more through a number of truly scary scenes which value suspense over shock, and I must tell you that the highlight moments of “The Conjuring” (2013) look like child’s play compared to these masterful moments. In case of a certain scene unfolded in Peter’s bedroom, it surely terrified me a lot, and I found myself becoming quite nervous when I tried to sleep on my bed after watching the movie.

Like the climactic part of “The Shining”, the final act of the movie act leaves many uncertain aspects which make us wonder what actually happens, and this may be quite baffling and frustrating to some of you, but I think the ending is not only appropriate but also inevitable considering everything preceding it. Although it does not make sense much in some aspects, it feels like a logical arrival point for the main characters’ imploding status, and you may appreciate a dark irony shown during the very final shot of the film.

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While the movie is his first debut feature film, Aster shows here that he is a promising filmmaker with considerable talent, and I admire how deftly he and his technical crew members generate mood and tension. Cinematographer Pawel Porgorzelski deserves to be praised for smooth and precise camerawork coupled with impeccable scene composition, and I especially appreciate the skillful utilization of lights and shadows during many key scenes in the film. While the atmospheric score by Colin Stetson constantly keeps us on the edge, the sound effects of the movie are also impressive as creating unsettling ambience on the soundtrack, and that is one of the main reasons why you must watch the movie at a movie theater equipped with good multi-channel audio system.

The main performers in the movie are terrific on the whole. While Toni Collette, a versatile actress who has always been reliable since she drew our attention through “Muriel’s Wedding” (1994), gives one of her best performances, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, and Gabriel Byrne are equally convincing in their respective roles, and Ann Dowd, who has recently been more prominent thanks to her Emmy-winning supporting performance in TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale”, is also fine as a substantial supporting character in the film.

Although it is not exactly entertaining, “Hereditary” is quite commendable in many aspects including mood, performance, and storytelling, and it surely deserves to be mentioned along with “A Quiet Place” (2018), another notable family horror film of this year. Like any good horror film, the movie touches upon our dark human feelings and then mercilessly delves into them, and it will grow on you more with its creepy emotional resonance. To be frank with you, I am not sure whether I can watch it again, but, boy, this is indeed one hell of a scary movie.

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