Better late than never, your correspondent went to watch Hereditary this week. It's a really good film, in fact it's a great one, though it doesn't live up to the lavish hype that has been heaped on it (though I doubt any film could quite frankly). Before I talk about what I want to, a quick review.
It does a good line in slowly escalating dread, has some genuine scares, is merciless in what it puts the characters through and is blessed with stellar performances, especially from Toni Collette and Alex Wolff. It also drags a little bit in places, Gabriel Byrne is a bit wooden and it loses it towards the end a little for me, where it strains to explain why all of the spooky shenanigans are happening.
It is also thematically rich and is as much about grief, the cycle of abuse and the fragmentation of family as it is about supernatural goings on. I recommend it heartily to anyone who likes their horror slow moving and cerebral. It gets an 8
So, the genuine scares and how director Ari Aster achieves them is what I found interesting when watching the film. I'm not and have little intention of becoming a film maker, but I found the techniques Aster used throughout to fascinating. Maybe because I watch so many horror films and know all of the cliches off by heart, it was nice to see someone doing something different and very effective.
Minor spoilers from here
Take the first vaguely supernatural thing that happens. It's the night after the funeral which kicks the whole thing off. Everything is relative normal in the house. Annie (Collette) has just buried her mother and given a eulogy where it's pretty clear the departed was a difficult person. She's looking through her mother's effects in her studio, which is full of miniatures so pretty spooky to begin with. There's a book on spiritualism, with a postcard from mum saying that “all the sacrifices will be worth the reward”. Annie is vaguely upset and turns off the light. She looks in the corner of the room and her expression turns to one of shock. Aster holds for a second before cutting to what she's looking at: what could be the figure of an older lady (her mother?) sat motionless in the dark.
A lesser film would have Annie scream, or blast out a music sting for a cheap jump scare. But Aster holds on the image silently for a few moments until cutting to Annie reaching for the light switch. When the room is illuminated again, he cuts to the same corner, now empty of course.
The above is subtle, quiet and genuinely unnerving. The scene is maybe two minutes long but my heart was in mouth the entire time. Aster pulls off several similar tricks later in the film. There's a moment where a character wakes up in their darkened room and slowly comes too. There's something behind them which they can't see and Aster draws no attention to until about 90 seconds in. It's bloody terrifying in a way which most horror films can't manage. They lack the patience and nerve to hold a single shot that long.
I love this kind of subtly in horror films. It's something that my favourite film of recent years It Follows excels at. A director trusting you to notice the horrible, telling detail yourself seems so much better than the loud noise or the crash zoom. These things have their place of course, and I appreciate that my preference is in a minority. But it's so lovely to see someone try something different from the norm
Aster is great at the technical stuff throughout. He loves a long, slow camera move, and the first scene I mentioned above trains you to check the frame or dread what might be in the background in the next second. He can also do a quick transition that serves to disorientate the viewer, switching from day to night or between scenes without the usual connective tissue.
It sounds great too. The score (by Colin Stetson) could give you palpitations if completely divorced from the images. It mostly consists of ominous drones and atonal shrieks, which makes it sound like the score of every other horror film, but this is seriously a cut above most offerings. The sound design is great (one noise will stick with you for days after the film, hoping you won't hear it as you're on the edge of sleep), helping to escalate the dread.
The way Hereditary avoids cliché and marshals Aster's obvious technical talents to generate an ambience of doom and create sweaty palmed terror is the best thing about it. I urge all horror fans to give it a go.