Edwin Arnaudin: Over the past five years, indie horror films including It Follows, You’re Next, The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night have been hailed by critics and fans as “the next big thing,” only to cheapen or downright ruin their inventive premises with lackluster execution. Now comes Hereditary, the latest film to carry immense praise heading into its release date. Is it the real deal or another false prophet?
Bruce Steele: Writer/director Ari Aster is certainly the real deal. I can’t recall the last time a filmmaker’s first feature reminded me of the work of Stanley Kubrick, but Hereditary has that kind of majestic, meticulous direction and carefully measured pacing that really ramps up the suspense without cheap tricks.
Edwin: Agreed! I also see a good deal of Roman Polanski’s psychological horror mixed in, namely in the Rosemary’s Baby-esque travails that befall the Graham family. But more than anything, I feel like this is Aster’s own film, full of creative imagery and sustained terror that rarely relies on traditional jump scares.
Bruce: He’s got a great cast, and really puts Toni Collette and Alex Wolff through the wringer. Colette plays Annie Graham, whose strange and estranged mother Ellen has just died in the Grahams’ house, so she’s unstable from the start. Then there’s another shocking jolt to the family, and both Annie and her son Peter (Wolff) get the brunt of the resulting haunts and psychological tortures. You can see why Colette took a producer role to help get the movie made. She gives quite a dynamic, edge-of-insanity performance. Very Polanski, indeed.
Edwin: Prior to Annie and Peter getting pushed to their limits, young Milly Shapiro (the star of Broadway’s Matilda the Musical) sets the creepy scene as 13-year-old Charlie Graham. With a face resembling Sloth from The Goonies, well-timed tongue clicks and regular questionable behavior, she’s the film’s primary unsettling source for most of its first half — after which Aster unfurls roughly an hour of sustained tension on par with The Shining’s final stretch.
Bruce: Hereditary owes a lot to The Shining, indeed. You could even say Charlie, as strange as she is (maybe borderline autistic?), is a worthy successor to The Shining’s Danny, but without Scatman Crothers to help her manage the madness to come.
Edwin: Thankfully, Gabriel Byrne is there to provide an anchor of sanity as family patriarch Steven. Were you likewise appreciative of his presence?
Bruce: I always like Gabriel Byrne, and he’s often cast as the well-meaning dad who can’t quite fix anything, which he’s perfect for. I really sympathized with him here, because that would have been me: Trying to manage and minimize, refusing to admit any supernatural component. Then there’s the reliable Ann Dowd (Hulu's The Handmaid’s Tale) as Joan, Annie’s new friend from a grieving support group.
Edwin: She’s terrific, further mastering the not-quite-beneveolent grandmother character type she and Margo Martindale have been peddling for the past decade. Did you mind that Joan introduces a familiar spiritual detail to Hereditary, or is that just the kind of grounding device the film needs from which to blast off into more inventive territory?
Bruce: Oh, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say Joan is a fan of séances. We can give readers that much of a tease, right? Because, yes, I think it’s exactly the familiar fuse necessary to turn Annie into a supernatural time bomb. With so much focus on character in the first hour or so, it’s a slow burn to the real spiritual fireworks, so Joan’s interference is nicely timed. Did all the revelations of the final act hang together for you?
Edwin: Not all of them, but I’d rather have some lingering mysteries when the credits roll than have every little detail tidily tied up. I think the embrace of some ambiguity is part of what distances Hereditary from the genre pretenders I mentioned earlier. Aster focuses on freaking viewers out instead of providing answer after answer, which nonetheless offers sufficient information to deepen one’s investment in the story. How did the culmination play out for you?
Bruce: I think the finale is pretty awesomely weird, but I was hoping for one more twist. That’s probably a reflection of my ever-increasing expectations as I watched the movie and felt like I was in the hands of a really skilled storyteller. Nevertheless, I think some viewers will want to go back for a second viewing to catch all the clues planted early on. And also to see more of Annie’s amazing, autobiographical miniature dioramas, which have apparently made her a famous artist. I can’t believe we failed to mention that until now.
Edwin: Indeed! The miniatures are crucial to Annie processing her grief and also provide insights into some troubling chapters from her past that are only hinted at in the film's dialogue. They fondly reminded me of Catherine Keener’s tiny paintings in Synecdoche, New York, and hit home the “dollhouse” control that talented filmmakers like Aster wield over their productions.
Bruce: Filmmakers do love metaphors for filmmakers, intentional or not. Telling some of Annie’s story through her miniatures works really well for a movie that specializes in turning the mundane into the malevolent: drinking glasses, chalkboards, doormats, notebooks and — most of all — Charlie’s tongue clicking. And all that is before the attic. Wow. I think I’ve now talked myself into a second viewing. Do you see any prospect for a sequel?
Edwin: Second chapters have been made from significantly lesser material, and Hereditary sets itself up for a potential Round Two. A quality sequel or prequel could be crafted with the right players, but I’m happy with it being a standalone film and, frankly, would rather see Aster tackle a different project than risk diluting what right now is a major accomplishment. Would you like to see this story extended?
Bruce: No, I agree it should stand alone, even if the ending suggests a follow-up – and the beginning and considerable back story, for that matter, suggest ample prequel fodder. I will join you in hoping to see Aster at the helm for another, completely different project, horror or comedy or whatever he’d like. The sooner the better. Meanwhile, I’m giving Hereditary an A-minus.
Edwin: It’s one of the best recent feature directorial debuts, up there with Brick, Lady Bird, Nightcrawler, Miles Ahead, Don Jon, Slow West, Get Out and Molly’s Game. Aster knows what he’s doing, and like the makers of those films is someone whose next project is already a must-see. Hereditary is indeed the real deal and also gets an A-minus from me.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and Grail Moviehouse