Film Review: Hereditary (R)

Hereditary

Hereditary

“No nuts.”

Hereditary has garnered a lot of hype on its way to movie theaters, drawing comparisons to such scary stalwarts as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or Repulsion. And while those comparisons may be somewhat misleading in terms of what to expect, Hereditary is certainly worthy of occupying a space next to those films in the hallowed halls of horror. It’s sophisticated, dark, uncomfortable, challenging, and it may leave some rank and file jump scare seekers confounded, but certainly not empty-handed.

The level of craft on display would be impressive for a seasoned director, but this is Ari Aster’s first film. His nimble use of cinematography and editing is clever and jarring. From the opening scene, Aster uses some cinematic sleight of hand to seamlessly drop actors Alex Wolff and Gabriel Byrne into a miniature diorama. Static exterior shots abruptly jump from night to day, bolstering the sense of turmoil and disorientation that pervades the film. Colin Stetson’s score supplements that mood, creating an oozing pulse accentuated with industrial rattles and clicks and a scraping, screeching arrangement of atonal strings.

The story centers around artist Annie Graham (Toni Colette) whose name betrays her enigmatic nature. Colette delivers an amazing performance as Annie, coping with the recent loss of her abusive mother while struggling to be attentive to her aloof children and increasingly beleaguered spouse. The strain is coupled with anxiety over the veritable minefield of her gene pool, a family curse that includes everything from dissociative identity disorder, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia, to sleepwalking and food allergies.

Like A24’s other critical horror darling, The Witch, Hereditary is an unnervingly voyeuristic experience. Audiences are forced to witness some of the most private and tense moments of family life, like dinners and bedtime confessions filled with blame, bitterness, and regret. These moments are completely relatable but so personal in nature that it feels as if you shouldn’t be seeing them. The film derives some of its most horrific and squirm-inducing moments not from ghosts and gore but from the quiet oppression of parental hell.

That’s not to suggest that this is entirely a psychological drama. There are plenty of ghosts and demons stalking the shadows. As with other recent arthouse horror flicks like The Babadook and It Follows, the bogeymen are metaphorical but provide a very real and visceral onscreen threat. They also provide a fairly graphic supply of gore. Aster has no qualms about lingering on scenes from which other directors would have quickly cut away or omitted altogether. It’s this penchant for reveling in distress that leads to a gobsmacking first act break that’s on par with Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Hereditary’s intellectual plotting and occasional scenery chewing may alienate some moviegoers, but this is a definite must-see for cinephiles and hardcore horror fans. The film itself isn’t easily accessible for everyone, especially the surrealistic pandemonium of the film’s fever-pitched third act, but its fears are universal. There’s nothing quite as horrifying as becoming your parents.

Film Review: ‘The Witch’ (R)

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“Woudst thou like to live deliciously?”

Despite how terrifying the trailers make it look, ‘The Witch’ is not that kind of horror film. There are no bogeymen popping out of dark corners, no gratuity of gore and nudity (mostly). You will not be jumping out of your seat. It is a more subtle film, where the monsters are real but kept in silhouette and acts of violence are committed off screen (mostly).

The film deals in squirming, psychological uncertainty moreso than traditional scares. After being banished from his village for heresy, Ralph Ineson and his family trek out into the American wilderness. The family is already fragile, racked by poverty and fear but too proud to acknowledge the direness of their situation. The titular crone only needs to apply the right pressure for Ineson’s family to start ripping itself apart.

We see the witch early on; we know she is real; we know that she is powerful and remorseless, but we don’t know when she will appear again. It is her influence rather than her actual presence that weighs on the narrative. Every journey into the woods is filled with quiet dread; every cute, fuzzy woodland creature is a potential source of malice.

Given the political paranoia and a shared supernatural subject matter, comparisons between ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Crucible’ are inevitable. Debut director Robert Eggers deftly captures the sentiments of the current election year. The witch in the woods embodies the malevolent unknown, the “other,” that breeds anxiety and anger and, in the end, drives us to commit acts no less evil than its own out of pride and desperation.

Eggers first effort is something to be envied. His casting choices seem to be pulled straight out of an early colonial painting and the employment of the score is masterful. Eggers cranks up the volume, approaching the unknown like a Kubrickian space odyssey, but is unafraid to pull the cord and let the audience sit unmercifully in silence. His abilities to conjure unease in a few wordless shots and build tension to unbearable levels are the foundations of the film.

‘The Witch’ is a beautifully shot and emotionally uncomfortable movie. But it has more in common with ‘Under the Skin’ than it does with ‘The Conjuring.’ It is meditative and slowly paced, which means it will likely leave gore hounds and thrill seekers unsatisfied. ‘The Witch’ is well worth your attention, but it definitely won’t appeal to everybody.