Tuesday, 26 June 2018

IN THEATRES: Hereditary

When her secretive, controlling mother dies, Annie (Toni Collette) tries to move on. Her relationship with her mother was - at best - strained; the rest of her family are dead, due to mental illness and (it is implied) her mother's manipulative nature.

But then events take a turn for the worst: her mother's grave is desecrated; her daughter Charlie dies in freak accident. Annie is at the end of her rope - until she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), another woman dealing with loss whom she meets at a support group.

Joan has found a way to deal with her grief, and presents Annie with an opportunity that might be the key to bringing the whole family back together...

Horror is a genre where you can really see the director's stamp. For the first two thirds of Hereditary I was hyper-sensitive to the choices that writer-director Ari Aster was making, in terms of shot selection, the sound design and space within the frame - I felt like I was stuck in a vice.

This is not a criticism - there is nothing wrong with being aware of technique, only when it is not used well, or as an attempt to cover up a deficiency in terms of performance or narrative function. Hereditary works on a technical level - I have not felt this unsafe in a studio horror film, at least in terms of  recent cinema releases.

What do I mean by that?

We are in an interesting time for horror on the mainstream stage. Horror is usually treated like a dirty secret - John Carpenter has a famous quote where he equates being designated a 'horror' filmmaker with being a pornographer. Nowadays, with the consistent box office success and critical acclaim of Blumhouse and films like The Conjuring and last year's Get Out, there are a lot of think pieces throwing around the idea of 'elevated horror', as though the genre is evolving out of something bad or low-rent. Or pundits go for the old tactic of trying to strip the horror tag off a film.

Horror, like comedy, is based on primal emotions. That is why its popularity with audiences remains consistent, while its critical fortunes are more complicated. There is an overriding sense that because it deals with visceral emotional responses it is somehow lesser as a form of artistic expression. 

Hereditary works because it engages with those primal responses on a universal emotional site: the family unit.

It also deals with has the intelligence to engage with familial taboos - not only the death of a child, but how the traumas of one generation can be passed on to the next, and the ultimate horror of recognising that parents can be fallible or malignant.

I have a theory that the film's success in exploring these ideas is the reason why a segment of the audience dislikes the film's final turn into the supernatural. Demons and headless corpses are familiar horror tropes - they are easy to grasp, and to dismiss, as fantasy.

You cannot do that with family crises, which are real, complex and hard to resolve. They are also universal - whoever you are, whatever familial unit or relationship you are involved in, the fear of losing trust in someone you care for is something that we all at least contemplate.

And what makes Hereditary work so well is that it has such a firm, unflinching grip on that fear - not of ghosts or witches, but hearing a parent tell their child that they never wanted them; or a spouse believing their other half has lost their mind, and can no longer be trusted.

Because those things are truly terrifying.

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