Genre: Horror, Drama, Mystery
Director/Writer: Ari Aster
Music: Colin Stetson
Cinematography: Pawel Pogorzelski
Everyone’s mileage may vary when it comes to the perception of occult, but USA director Ari Aster’s feature debut HEREDITARY, stoutly refrains from American horror genre’s go-to stock-in-trade (fixating more on his performers’ moderate-to-corybantic reaction shots than cursory jump scares and foreboding music cues), its anti-gory freshness paves the way for constructing a deeply upsetting story about an ancient demon looking for a new human host within a middle-class nuclear family.
The said family is the Grahams, Annie Graham (Collette) is a miniature artist marred to Steve (Byrne, understatedly playing a hapless second fiddler here), and they have two teenage children, the 16-year-old Peter (Alex Wolff, a split image of his elder brother Nat) and his younger sister Charlie (newcomer Shapiro, whose unorthodox countenance alone can elicit a semblance of uncanniness). After the opening caption informs audience the funeral of Annie’s mother and the bang-up opening shot zooming in on a miniature room and then morphing into its life-size counterpart, something seriously eldritch has been drip-feeding to us through Aster’s patient unfolding where morbid incidents, preternatural oddities, familial incommunicability and dark secrets sneakingly simmering with arresting stamina, plus it is never a good sign to glimpse that Ann Dowd (THE HANDMAID’S TALE’s Aunt Lydia) is sitting among the support group in which Annie partakes to let on her mixed feelings about recent bereavement. Then, a shocking death, stuns spectators like a sledgehammer, and Wolff comports himself with a stupendous trance of post-trauma self-denial and agony in the wake of the gruesome beheading accident, even tentatively leads us to believe that it is unreal, until Annie’s disembodied harrowing scream shatters our wishful thinking.
From that point on, the narrative accelerates considerably as the tension swells inside the family, sundry pedestrian horror tropes ensues, conjuration, séances, nightmares and apparitions infest the goings-on, much obliged to Annie’s new friend Joan (Dowd, solicitous and compassionate to a fault of over-zealousness), whose relation with Annie’s deceased mother is the major reveal (although Aster leaves the hint quite earlier on) to herald what cockamamie atrocities lay in store for the remaining family members. Most action takes place in the family’s quaintly spacious dwelling with a tree house in a bosky location, and Aster makes great play of the soundstage to carry out the final stage of the dybbuk ritual, with headless corpses, stark naked cult votaries popping up to proffer ample shock and awe, and if you are anticipating an evil-defeated payoff, don’t get your hopes up.
Awards traction must be conferred to Toni Collette and Alex Wolff, the former commands the show with incredible pyrotechnics, her Oscar moment arrives in that transfixing dinner table outburst, which swamps the scene with such immense aggression and desperation, one involuntarily judders with frisson; meanwhile the latter, counterpoints the former’s slipping into hysterics with a perpetually haunted daze as the innocent lamb, who is weighed down by waxing guilt and perplex, and whose sanity is chipped away by the immaterial being that covets his final capitulation.
Grappling with tragedies beyond their control, HEREDITARY boldly sheds a light on the perilous obverse what blood-line can inflict on the next of kin through its figurative yarn, and flags up the hard-wired malady that inveterately passes on through shared DNAs, a cross everyone must bear to reflect the divinity walking among us with their own indecipherable design.
referential entries: M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE (1999, 8.3/10); Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968, 7.4/10).