Some unhappy families are unluckier than others

Looks like A24, founded in 2012 and quickly becoming a major player in movie distribution, is pulling quality horror flicks out of a hat with disquieting regularity: they brought us The VVitch in 2015, It Comes At Night and The Killing of a Sacred Deer last year. Ok, for some, Sacred Deer is not exactly a horror movie, but like the others, it features a family in distress. And so does Hereditary. And if you find an unhappier, unluckier family than the Grahams anywhere in film or literature, you were looking maybe too hard.

For the bigger part, Hereditary deserves its praise. It features a lot of horror tropes: jump scares, seances, apparitions, ghosts, writings on the wallpaper in a foreign language, incantations, weird noises, a creaky old house, miniature houses that take on a life of their own, a kid who looks much too old for her years, levitations, beheadings, sleepwalking, birds flying against windows, spontaneous combustions, drugs. It’s just that Ari Aster, in a stunning debut, knows how to employ all of that so it becomes a poisonous diorama of a family about to dissolve. Plus there is the cast: first mention must go to Toni Collette as Annie who builds those weird little dollhouses and accident scenes. Collette has stated that she does not like horror movies, but she is so very good in them. Here, she has two big monologues that are already worth seeing the movie. The first one is in a self-help group, where she states that she doesn’t want to talk, and then embarks on a monologue containing anger, grief and despair all in one.

And there is Gabriel Byrne, whom I have watched in In Treatment for so long that I immediately took him to play a psychiatrist here, too. And it turned out to be true. Spooky, huh? And there is Milly Shapiro as their daughter Charlie, who seems to intuit that all this won’t end well at all. And Peter, played by Alex Wolff, who probably has the hardest lot because not only does his mother pick on him, he is also involved in an accident, the aftermath of which is the most soul-crushing scene of the movie. And there is Ann Dowd, and when has Ann Dowd ever not delivered? She is able to convince Annie that a séance is just the thing she should try right now, and a very sane thing, too.

What I admired most about the movie for its first half is the verbal violence that goes around. There are so many menacing silences and loaded pauses during their family dinners that Harold Pinter would look on in admiration, but then they start talking and insinuating and accusing each other while Steve the family shrink tries to talk them all down, to no avail. Movie dialogue is often dumbed down so the audience doesn’t have to think too hard, but here, there are depths that made me shiver.

And then we come to the end, and it all goes wrong somehow. (I will have to give away some plot points, so a SPOILER WARNING is in order.) David Fincher’s Seven is so effective because, among other things, there is no prior knowledge needed about the seven deadly sins. You watch the movie and at least you feel vaguely guilty about one or several of them. You know about lust, greed, pride and the others because you’ve felt them. Hereditary presents us with the theory that King Paimon, one of the kings of hell, has been trapped in a female body (Annie’s mother) and can only come to his full former glory in a male body. Who is King Paimon to me? No-one, that’s who, and I needed Ann Dowd to explain that to me and the rest of the audience. If you need explanations of why you should be afraid, it starts chipping away at the fear that the movie has built up so carefully, and no horror movie can afford to lose that. Yes, the scene in the attic with that cult and the dead bodies is powerful, but the air is out of the balloon, and while it should have scared me one last time by bursting, it lets out a shrill whistle by using a little known demon as the big reveal. It’s a vanilla ending to a great horror movie. I prefer horror without much exposition or explanation, for instance It Comes At Night.

Here’s something else: Ari Aster is already filming his second movie, with Jack Reynor, Will Poulter and Florence Pugh. Reynor and Poulter have made Glassland in 2014 with Toni Collette. And Florence Pugh has proven in Lady Macbeth that she is capable of deeply horrifying things.

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