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By now, we’re all used to the typical contemporary style of horror that includes jump-scares, clichès and plenty of gore. It is arguably becoming one of the most boring genres of filmmaking because, well, everyone knows how to do it. There is a clear narrative formula in each, a family’s house is haunted, a child gets possessed and there is a big climatic confrontation in the last 20 minutes and they almost always end on a cliffhanger. Although entertaining, I for one am very used to this and so I am no longer frightened by mainstream horror films. I desire something innovative that challenges expectations and pushes boundaries in a shocking and experimental way. In summer 2018, I watched a film that ticked all these boxes, and I am about to tell you why.
*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*
Hereditary, (2018, Ari Aster,) follows Toni Collette and her family through a series of traumatic events that follow the death of her mysterious mother.
While at a party that his mother made him take his little sister to, Peter (Alex Wolff) sparks a bong with a girl that he’s “into” while Charlie is getting a slice of cake, which in a previous and brief shot we see is cut with the same knife that was used to slice a type of nut. In the very early shots of the film, we are given exposition dialogue informing us that Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is severely allergic to nuts. This is admirable because if you aren’t paying attention during these early moments, you might miss it, giving it an element of unpredictability that a passive spectator might enjoy. Needless to say, Charlie has an allergic reaction and interrupts her brother who rushes out to their car and begins speeding down a long and straight road to get her to the hospital. The cinematography throughout this sequence, such as the smooth tracking shots, is affective in creating tension and anxiety as we worry for her safety. Struggling to breathe, Charlie winds down the window to stick her head out, much like a dog would. What follows is a series of short duration shots that show her incredibly shocking death—the true horror of the film. This throws the spectator off as we are set up from the start by mise-en-scenè and performance to believe that she will be the source of conflict, but instead we are given one of the most gruesome and intense death scenes that I, personally, have ever watched. This pushes the boundaries of horror because she is only 13 and we’ve just seen her being decapitated which is not only gory and sudden but it’s very disturbing in a way that parents may be too uncomfortable to continue watching.
The next scene is Toni Collette’s heart-wrenching performance after she discovers her daughters head-less body in the back seat of her car. She lets out screams of desperation and pain that communicates the level of trauma that comes along with the loss of a child. This scene was particularly difficult for me to watch because of how genuine and believable her screams are; how she didn’t win an Oscar is completely beyond me.
Now, if reality being represented in horror films isn’t for you, don’t worry. After this horrific accident we are thrown into your typical horror formula, the family is grieving the loss of Charlie. When Annie Graham attends a group therapy she meets a lady (Kathy Bates) who introduces her to a psychic’s methods of contacting the dead. What unfolds is a series of uniquely terrifying scenes as Annie unwittingly invites a dangerous entity into their home, her sleepwalking takes over as she reminisces about her past mistakes that led to the damaged relationship between her and her son. The quick paced editing within this sequence allows for a dream like quality while we see the camera bounce between Annie and Peter’s facial expressions which quickly turn into a form of visceral horror before Annie awakens from her dream. This happens to be my favourite sequence of the film as it carries elements of german expressionism by reflecting the psychology of Annie through Toni Collette’s once again, phenomenal performance.
The film’s climax carries another disturbing combination of gore and body horror that unsettles the audience in a way that a jump scare might not. Although there are no distinct clichés, the final scenes are arguably quite cheesy, I believe Ari Aster did this with the intent to reinforce the surreal tones of the rest of the film therefore making it acceptable. There is no new equilibrium established which leaves the audience with the same unsettled, tense feeling well into the end credits.
To summarise, Hereditary, is a unique take on classic horror that both challenges the expectation of the audience and presents terrifying ideologies about family life. The aesthetics of the film gives it a surreal tone that seems influenced by german expressionism while simultaneously creating a new, psychological breed of horror films. Ari Aster has out done himself with this breakout feature length film and he is someone to follow if you’re bored of the same old formulas.