Friday 15 June 2018

HEREDITARY review - Sundance London 2018

Sundance London took place at Picturehouse Central a couple of weeks ago, delivering a wide array of films that made a big splash in Utah at the main festival. Settled in for a weekend of hopefully high quality films, first up on my list was the much hyped horror Hereditary.

Struggling to deal with her grief in the aftermath of her mother's death, Annie (Toni Collette) seeks strength from her husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne) and two children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). When things take a turn for the worse and loss becomes too much for the family to bear, dark secrets come to light that will forever change the way Toni thinks about her mother and challenge her maternal instincts.

Toni Collette was present at the start of the screening, along with the film's director, first-timer Ari Aster. Although Aster has been quick to state that he doesn't consider this to be a horror, let's take that as a marketing ploy to entice the trepidatious off the fence and into a cinema seat. This may be riding a wave of "post-horror" titles (including other A24 releases like It Comes At Night and The VVitch) that have managed to appeal to audiences outside of the traditional multiplex crowd pleasers, but there's no doubt in which genre this belongs to. A more accurate statement about the film came from Collette, who signed off her introduction with "I apologise for appearing in your nightmares".

At the start of the film Annie is grieving for the loss of her mother, a woman she had a complicated relationship with that also affected her relationship with her own children. Annie has always held a grudge against her mother for being a bad parent who cared more about her friends than her, and struggled to allow her back into her life when she needed help. Her youngest, Charlie, was especially close to her grandmother, and starts to exhibit worrying behaviour, cutting the head off a pigeon that flies into the window with a pair of scissors, and then carrying it around it her pocket. Charlie also has what can only be described as a nervous tick, clicking her tongue inside her mouth to create a "tock" sound that is destined to burrow its way into your brain and freak you out every time you hear it.

What sets this film apart is its approach to finding ways to scare you. Although one early scene that may or may not feature a ghostly apparition in a darkened corner of the room is classic haunted house fare, the remainder of the film finds new, more interesting ways to create horror, namely by letting you get to know these characters and toying with your affections to them. Audiences expecting something along the lines of recent horrors like The Conjuring or Insidious may find Hereditary's pace frustrating, as this film is not afraid to take its time in setting up its scenes of terror, avoiding cheap spine tinglers or jump scares. Instead, you are allowed to appreciate and care for these characters before the film's narrative completely side swipes you unexpectedly, delivering what for me was one of the most unexpected and disturbingly brutal scenes (and its aftermath) I have ever experienced in a cinema. Whilst avoiding spoilers about which moment I'm referring to, what I'll say is that in the screening I was in there was a collective sound of disbelief and awe at the audacity of it. This is a filmmaker who knows how to push his audience's buttons.

This is a film that is able to deliver well crafted shocks from a technical standpoint, but it must also be commended for the work of its stellar cast. Milly Shapiro, already a Broadway star from her turn as Matilda, is an incredible presence on screen. As Charlie, she has such an interesting face and way at looking at the world, permanently curious and perplexed by the world around her. Having started his career in tween television and appearances in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and My Friend Dammer, this will be the breakout role for Alex Wolff who, as the grieving teenage son with issues piling up in front of him, runs the gamut of emotional frailty and unimaginable guilt and is fantastic in the role.

But there's no denying that this is Toni Colette's film, in what may be her best performance yet. We've seen her play in the horror genre before, notably as Cole Sear's mother in M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense; but here she delivers an entire spectrum of grief, from the sound of her discovering earth shattering truths that will change her family dynamics forever, to crafting her ornate miniature sculptures that depict the most traumatic scenes of her life, or in what is one of the highlights of the film, berating her eldest child in one of the all time great dinner table confrontations. This is a difficult, immensely challenging role for Collette, but her performance, particularly in the film's head-spinning final act, is nothing short of astounding.

Hereditary arrives with a huge amount of buzz, with some dubbing it the scariest film for generations. Although it's hard to be completely in agreement with the Hereditary hyperbole that has created a massive weight of expectation for the film, this is a damn fine horror with some truly unsettling imagery that will stay with you for a long time. Generations, maybe. There's so much to study and dissect about Hereditary that it is already being lined up as a future classic, and there is a danger that it will become a victim of its own hype, to which I can't help but contribute to. But for audiences in search of new scares that are more insidious than Insidious, this debut feature offers something new and deeply disturbing.


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