It’s fashionable to bemoan big studio budgets flowing only towards flying men in tights and spaceships zipping around long, long ago, but what about the little studio budgets? Are they now beholden to a genre long cast aside by critics but a guilty to proud pleasure of many film fans worldwide, horror? Writer/director Ari Aster seemed resigned to this as modern gospel in a post screening Q&A session this week, telling the audience he graduated from film school in 2010 loaded with ideas for serious R rated thrillers and family dramas, only to find little to no interest in such scripts until he went ahead and married them to the spookfest tropes which, at a fraction of the cost of the latest Marvel movie, reliably make small studios large profits. I’ve always found horror to be one of the best ‘big tent’ film forms around, allowing for drama, romance, comedy and any number of fantastical examinations of otherwise land-locked subject matter. Aster apparently has too with his relentlessly dark debut film, Hereditary, albeit with a hint of recalcitrance lurking like a sour spirit around a few corners.
One of the best gifts A24 gave to this movie is a marketing campaign that lays out the broad concept and vibe but tells the audience next to nothing about what actually happens in this film; it’s a gift most two minute trailers refuse to offer, instead hammering out the three acts of a story plus half of the big payoffs, fed to us by a clunky four quadrant spoon. Trust me when I say you don’t know what you’re in for with Hereditary, and I won’t be spoiling the fun here. A quick description might look something like Dario Argento’s Ordinary People. We are introduced to a family grieving the loss of a mysterious, withholding grandmother, but quickly come to realize they’re grieving a normal, happy family life that never quite materialized for them, too. Father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) quietly goes through the day to day motions of keeping house up and family together, but he’s often shown wistfully gazing into the distance over a glass of scotch, perhaps envisioning an escape that he knows will never come. Mother Annie, played with bracing immediacy by Toni Collette, uneasily splits the difference between fierce matriarch and wanton disruptor. Son Peter (Alex Wolff) pursues a semblance of teen normalcy through an increasingly sad set of eyes, and Milly Shapiro’s Charlie, the youngest child and only daughter, has an otherworldly presence that makes one question whether or not she arrived on the right planet at birth.
It’s not doing the film a disservice to leave this character summary as a plot description, because Hereditary really does read like a sad family drama above all else—Aster is clearly taken with the characters, their interactions and history, which does a fine job of investing the viewer so that we’ll care when things worsen—and worsen they do. The transition into the supernatural horrors we all know are coming is fairly seamless, although the sheer breadth of well known cinematic nightmare tactics employed, not to mention scenes and concepts borrowed from earlier pillars of the genre, might ultimately be a little off putting to those who swim in these dark waters often. It’s all very effectively woven together—Aster’s a talent to watch, for sure—yet by the end one almost feels the director has taken a kitchen sink approach to the scares in order to get something, anything approaching what he originally wanted to create into the multiplexes. That said, what he’s gotten is a very well acted and shot thriller, deeply rooted in character and proud to swing its influences around like a well knotted noose.