FILM REVIEW – HEREDITARY. With Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd. Written by and directed by Ari Aster. Rated R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity. 127 minutes.
One of the current challenges at the movies is what might be called “the arthouse horror film.” On the one hand, we got the brilliant “Get Out,” which was scary and entertaining while presenting us with an unsettling take on our modern world. On the other hand, was the vastly overpraised “The Quiet Place,” where the superior craftsmanship could not overcome the gaping holes in the plot. Which brings us to HEREDITARY.
It was a favorite at the Sundance Film Festival which should be a big warning sign. They also swooned at “The Babadook” and “It Follows,” two other horror films that failed to satisfy. What the failures have in common is that they have an interesting concept which the filmmakers think is enough to compensate for a dull plot and weak characterizations. They might also have some clever technical pyrotechnics, and for some, that will be enough.
“Hereditary” is very much at peace with being one of these “arthouse horror movies.” It has its horrific moments, but, essentially, it’s an overlong movie about a dysfunctional family where one is hard-pressed to care about any of the characters. The movie opens at the funeral of the mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette). The music tells us that things are creepy, especially as we see what looks like dollhouses but turns out to be Annie’s artwork.
Annie is married to Steve (Gabriel Byrne in yet another wooden performance), and they have two children. Their son, Peter (Alex Wolff), is a moody teenager while their daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), is a creepy 12-year-old who has a nut allergy and, possibly, mental problems. When Peter is off to a party without adult supervision – he lies to Annie about it – she insists that he take Charlie along. When he tells her to go have some cake while he goes off to a bedroom to get high with a girl he likes, we know that there’s trouble brewing.
This leads to a horrific death and lots of family guilt, with Annie being approached at a grief counseling session by a woman (Ann Dowd) who wants to introduce her to seances. As this point, none of the characters are sympathetic, although Collette gives her all in making Annie a woman struggling with her grief. By the time the film gets into the home stretch it goes totally off the rails, with decaying corpses, secret agendas, and an ancient ritual that will impact all the characters.
As with “The Quiet Place,” “Hereditary” is not a cheap knockoff but a movie where there has been a real effort to invest in film technique. The sound editing here is extraordinary, from the eerie music at the beginning, signaling the intent of the filmmaker long before anything horrific actually occurs, to the climactic scene where the audience seems to be surrounded by the characters. Alas, it’s not enough.
With a bloated script and unlikeable characters, “Hereditary” cannot be saved by technique. Although the film offers some shocks and images that will disturb, it fails to make us care, with a payoff that comes from out of left field. Maybe this sort of thing plays well at Sundance, but it’s not likely to impress mainstream audiences.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.