I hate The Conjuring Universe – insipid tired jump scares disguising themselves as real horror, homogenizing what I love and doing a massive disservice to the genre by flooding the market with these bland-fests that mold and shape the public perception of horror until even these cold serves of mediocrity seem good to them. In this list I include the Annabelle series, the Saw movies, The Nun, The Crooked Man, Lights Out and of course, The Conjuring movies themselves – well acted and well made but wet squibs all the same.
After last years epic horror resurgence with Get Out, It, The Black Coats Daughter, Happy Death Day and mother! we finally were seeing a full range of different and intriguing horrors; luckily 2018 is shaping up to be just as good, starting with the excellent A Quiet Place and now Hereditary.
Annie, (Toni Collette) has just lost her mother after a long battle with illness during which time they mostly mended the huge rift between them, though with some understandable trepidation on Annie’s part. We meet her family – meek and accommodating dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne, pulling a sharp turn on barely contained worry), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and the possibly ‘on the spectrum’ though never discussed disquieting younger daughter Charlie (a remarkable Milly Shapiro).
The scenes of family life are deliberately slow and studied, with themes of grief, guilt, and family history exposed in the minutiae.
Annie is an artist who recreates scenes and moments from her life in miniature tableaus to be displayed in a distant gallery, far removed from their seemingly idyllic life in the countryside. Details are eked out over phone calls from the gallery gently and then increasingly more insistent about when they will receive their next installation from her, from the scenes Annie chooses to depict in her artwork, the half conversations between husband and wife, the obvious unease son Peter feels around his mother – a symptom of his feeling unwanted and resented by her, the care and concessions the family makes for Charlie’s obvious challenges.
Suddenly a further tragedy occurs and it is one of the most shocking things I’ve seen in cinema. It is a catalyst for the second part of the film where things get a lot more unpleasant, terrifying and anxiety-inducing, until it culminates in a truly heart-stopping finale that leaves you reeling in your seat as the credits roll.
There are some horrific scenes here; acts and incidences that you want to recoil from because they are so damn raw and gut wrenching, but that’s the point, and I celebrate the achievement. The script explores the damaging effects of a lack of communication, family secrets and things passed down you cannot escape from, mental health and its implications on those who surround the sufferer, and grief and how destructive it can be.
The performances are all perfect, from the always-excellent Ann Dowd as friend Joan, to the main cast. Alex Wolff is quietly devastating as poor Peter – his face conveys so much and this is a truly committed and outstanding performance I did not see coming from the Jumanji 2017 star. Toni Collette manages to surpass even my high expectations, she is always amazing but her work here is superlative; almost too real, watching her feels like voyeurism, she’s that good.
The cinematography is clever, the sets exquisitely detailed, the direction so much more assured than you would ever hope to see in a debut.
Writer/Director Ari Aster said he wanted to make a film that would “upset people on a very deep level, to traumatize them”, the way horror used to give us actual nightmares not just a few polite jumps before sending us back to our lives, and that is what horror has been needing.
Horror should not be about being liked, it should be about making something that will last. I see horrors because they are one of the only genres that effect you long after the movie is over, and I have despaired of this quality for many years now, watching complacent horror after complacent horror in which only a handful really want to make an impact on your life and the genre as a whole.
I’m trilled to say that Hereditary succeeds in its goal to present something not just scary, but truly horrifying.
See it but be warned – you may not be the same afterwards.