Horror has long been a genre that can act as an incubator for new talent, and not without good reason, given its low financial bar to entry and perennial popularity. But sometimes a low-budget horror film comes along that is so good, so polished, that it can easily deceive the audience into thinking that it’s the work of a seasoned professional rather than a talented novice. That’s certainly the case with Hereditary, a tour de force debut for first-time feature writer/director Ari Aster. Not since Robert Eggers’ The Witch premiered in 2015 have I been so completely blown away by an indie horror debut, and much like that film, Hereditary is likely to be deeply divisive, even among diehard genre fans.
As was true of The Witch, Hereditary makes the most of its minuscule budget by keeping its supernatural elements primarily implied rather than overt until the final act, carefully avoiding the tired jump scares and gratuitous gore that characterize so much of what passes for horror these days. Metaphor-laden without being preachy, subtle without being obscure, Aster’s script is a psychological melodrama posing as an occult horror film, a subversive sheep in wolf’s clothing. The film’s themes of familial conflict and parental resentment are much more relatable than its tale of Satan worshiping housewives might suggest, but does that make them any less insidious?
Aster’s story follows an upper-middle-class family whose world is upended by an almost incomprehensible tragedy, an accident that will forever change the way in which parents Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and Annie (Toni Collette) relate to angsty teen son Peter (Alex Wolff). But by that point, the standard of weirdness has already been set almost implausibly high by newcomer Milly Shapiro, whose role as younger sister Charlie gives her one of the spookiest “creepy kid” turns on record. Still, it’s Collette who steals the show here, bouncing between befuddlement and bellicose bombast with a deftness that deserves every accolade out there. Is Hereditary about the lords of hell or about bipolar disorder? Colette’s masterful performance has its devil’s food cake and eats it too.
If there’s a good deal of ingenuity here, that’s not necessarily to say that Hereditary is a wholly original film. Aster borrows liberally from Roman Polanski, lifting thematic and visual elements from The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby. There are also touches of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, with just a dash of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu tossed in for good measure. If Aster’s visual acumen doesn’t quite measure up to those lofty antecedents, it’s not for lack of trying.
And that’s really my sole gripe with Hereditary — Aster seems to be trying a bit too hard. He moves his camera unnecessarily, with near-constant pans and tilts diminishing the impact of the shots that should count. Still, he shows enough restraint to forgo easy scares in favor of slow-burn tension and some truly disturbing tableaus. It’s not quite a perfect film, but it’s damned close — and far better than one might reasonably expect of a feature debut from a heretofore unknown director of shorts. It’s perhaps fitting that Aster is a graduate of the same AFI program that fostered the talents of David Lynch, because like Lynch, he’s found the devil in the details of middle-class American family life. Rated R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity.
Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Grail Moviehouse, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.