Hereditary: A rare horror masterpiece that broadens the genre’s mainstream

There is little doubt that the movie will carve out a space for itself in the years to come.

 |  5-minute read |   08-07-2018
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It is fair to say that the contemporary American horror genre — films made in and after the 1990s — is saturated with circular, formulaic content. 

Both established names like James Wan of Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring fame, and emergent mainstream filmmakers with lengthy independent careers, like David F Sandberg (of Lights Out and Annabelle: The Creation fame), have ultimately come around from their experimental interventions to rely on time-tested cliches. This new wave, although crisper in visual expression, is still mostly reticent in twisting the genre’s norms.

Hereditary, released in June, is markedly distinct — it's debutante director, refreshingly bold. If Wan and Sandberg are the new doyens of atmospheric horror, then Ari Aster is no less than a wizard. The debut feature, which received stellar reception at Cannes and Sundance earlier in the year, pushes the peripheries of the modern horror genre to territories that are sparsely frequented.

The film, written by Aster, is awash with tragedy, grief and despair. There is a frequent and looming sense of finality in the story that stays with you long after you’re finished. It begins with a sombre funeral, moves into dense interpersonal territories, lingers on the inexplicable, and then rapidly descends into utter, and often senseless, madness. The final scenes teeter on the edge of bizarre.

Renowned film critic Mark Kermode, in a review for The Guardian, wrote that the film ultimately uses "generic cliches" often shirking “well-mapped psychogeography for psychokinetic silliness.” This isn’t all that incorrect. But while Aster’s story is fundamentally woven around jump scares, confines of a house, family tragedies, demonic possessions, and telekinesis, it uses mainstream tropes with much more finesse and nuance than most other genre contemporaries. 

In Hereditary, the descension of the characters isn’t hasty or thoughtless. Almost all house horror films bank upon tragedies — individual, family or community — to nudge the audience out of its comfort zone, but most bypass the subjective innards of those tragedies to quickly jump to the spookery. Hereditary refuses to do that.

It patiently expends the first half of the film in establishing key interpersonal narratives, exploring them from multiple angles, and finally puts them in the context of the foreboding horror. This initial investment works very well for the story, ultimately giving startling returns at the end. It is so compelling, hypnotic and meticulous a tale that even the cliches appear new.

hereditary-copy_070718043936.jpg[Photo: Screengrab]

Aster’s narrative style is endearing. Through a masterfully crafted screenplay strewn with tense family scenes and cerebral dialogues, he allows his viewers to become intimate with his characters and eventually, unravel them. This is just before he yanks them mercilessly into a dark, endless abyss of terror and senselessness. But, Aster treats the horror not just as an abstract function of supernaturalism, but also as a derivative of earthly grief.

Aster leads the viewers into the thick of an increasingly dysfunctional and vulnerable family, and pushes them to mingle with a set of very real people with starkly real responses to oddities. As the story snakes its way into the darkness, these character begin to step into the unreal — a metamorphosis so deeply unsettling and sickening that it numbs you. Ultimately, the solid emotional context makes the devastating end much more terrifying than usual.

Hereditary also deserves a noisy applause for some spectacular performances by the cast. Toni Collette is unusually convincing as a besieged, repressed wife and mother who is suddenly afflicted with an unthinkable tragedy. Without a doubt, Collette’s powerful act deserves across-the-board nominations and probably, much more. In retrospect, it appears incredibly tough to imagine Annie Graham without Collette.

So is Alex Wolff as the downbeat, pot-smoking teen, Peter, and his strange younger sister, Ellen, played by 15-year old Milly Shapiro. The ever-stoned Wolff handles his character’s descension with much sobriety, while Milly thickens the air manifold every time she appears on the screen. Both, with their own unassuming presence and tragic tales, make Hereditary a film of theatrical proportions.

Masterfully shot in a mix of conventional and experimental profiles under muted lights, the film relies on a subtle visual language that, just like the narrative, gives ample space for viewers to get intimate with the characters. The talented Pawel Pogorzelski uses slow zoom-ins-outs, pans, and lingering shot transformations to only heighten the rare maturity and creeping tension in Aster’s storytelling.

Hereditary rides on an orchestral, partly ambient, soundtrack that adorns the story’s steady, foreboding, descent into absolute terror. Colin Stetson’s rich background as an orchestral multi-instrumentalist shows amply in the expansive and bone-chilling sound design of the film. The editing is crisp and controlled and does not move ahead of the story.

While Aster’s debut project has been likened to horror classics like The Exorcist (1973) and The Shining (1980), the contemporisation is copiously imaginative in itself. Yet, the film does echo the sombre, heady narrative pace of the 1970s and 80s visible in films like Poltergeist (1982), Suspiria (1977), The Omen (1976), and the heavily underrated 1973 British-Italian indie classic, Don’t Look Now.

But there is little doubt that Hereditary will carve out a space for itself in the years to come. Alongside other great contemporary works like It Follows and The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Aster’s rich debut represents a longstanding genre that holds immense promises of newness and creativity. It is too early to judge whether the film will gain cult following in the years to come, but Hereditary is not a film that shakes off easily.

Also read: Why Pakistan's deep state is targeting Nawaz Sharif


Angshuman Choudhury Angshuman Choudhury @angshuman_ch

The author is a researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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