When the posters proclaimed that Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary was as terrifying as The Exorcist, my first thought was: “Is The Exorcist actually as scary as we claim it to be?”
Side note: A school friend of mine gave me a copy of the extended director’s cut to keep and I was too afraid to watch it for years. Mark Kermode, I can assure you, I have watched it since!
This provocative statement works only as a way to make us remember our own ‘horror’ surrounding The Exorcist, as a ‘do we dare?’ sleepover movie option, or as a way to boast to friends in the school playground that we’d seen the infamous spiderwalk with our very own eyes. The hysteria that existed around the film in someways was more influential than the film itself. If the execs could harness even at little of that hype for Hereditary, they’d be onto a box office winner. No wonder they put it on the poster.
Where the two films can be compared is in the overwhelming feeling of dread that pervades throughout both pictures. And while I never particular found The Exorcist to be ‘terrifying’ as such, just creepy and incredibly atmospheric, Hereditary did seriously spook me at several key moments.
Horror and the cinematic themes of motherhood go hand-in-hand, just look to the modern Australian classic The Babadook or return to 1960s to see how Rosemary’s Baby tells very different tales of terrorised young mothers. In this way, both The Exorcist and Hereditary are insights to parents increasingly distanced from their children, with seemingly supernatural intervention setting a course for the destruction of the family unit.
While Regan and her mother Chris (played with steel by Ellen Burstyn) appear to be close to begin with in The Exorcist, despite Chris daring to have a successful acting career alongside motherhood in the 1970s, the Graham family’s disharmony in Hereditary can be felt almost immediately from the first scene. Tension flares merely from forgetting to take shoes off at the door or from asking to borrow the car. When the terror kicks into overdrive, we are truly left to wonder that if this family do make it out the other side alive and sane, will they even make it out together?
Toni Collette is Annie Graham, once again putting in a bruising performance as a neurotic, anxious artist, understandably concerned about the influence her distant (and recently deceased) mother has had on her quiet daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Collette recently admitted that she had initially wanted to work on lighter project that required less crying for a change, but that she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be in this film. And I am grateful she did. Whether it is a blistering rant at the dinner table that says so much about the way that grief can exacerbate unreleased anger, or her character’s faltering attempts to make herself understood to her family, Collette is stellar as an artist increasingly unable to occupy her stifling reality or find solace the artificial worlds she creates in her artwork.
Son Peter (Alex Wolff) appears to be a typical teenager, at odds with his parents, getting stoned at any opportunity and despairing at having to take his younger sister along to a party. When something horrible occurs that turns the family’s inner turmoil inside out, the Graham family is exposed to horrors that exploits their precarious power-keg existence to the limit.
For a debut film, Aster’s direction is exemplary and confident, while cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera work is manipulative and hypnotic. Jump scares, the go-to weapon of choice for horror films of late, are dispensed with, instead the slow creep of the camera far more terrifying, and a clever use of the 90-degree camera-tilt is the choice of a director unafraid to delve into the box of tricks to make his mark on the horror genre. The tone is uncanny, nervous audience laughter is borne of strange silences, stilted conversations and bizarre imagery, while the score is minimal but affecting. I can’t wait to see what Aster does next, and would love to see him continue his experiments in the horror genre.
Upon reaching the conclusion of the film, you either go with it or you don’t. I personally find horror films more unnerving when things are left relatively unexplained, as a little moments exposition in the certain moments feel a tad unnecessary. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or to scream by the end of Hereditary, and I have a shuddering, gnawing feeling that’s exactly the point.