Some of the finest horror films use their platform to explore the impact of grief. The likes of Don't Look Now, The Descent and The Babadook are all, to varying degrees, defined by the effect loss has on a central character. And to that rank we add Hereditary, an indie horror that arrives in cinemas with a wealth of hype.
The film opens on the death of Ellen, mother to artist Annie. A complicated relationship and a painful familial history gives way to a building sense for Annie that something bad is going on, that events are turning sinister. Soon things escalate and turn supernatural.
Hereditary comes close to brilliance. For at least the first hour the film sustains a sombre tone and sweltering tension that prickles away at its audience. This first half is punctuated by two extraordinary moments that will surely be amongst the standouts of the year. One of these benefits from the talents of Toni Collette, whose frankly extraordinary performance manages to ground a film that becomes increasingly silly as it propels to an ending that doesn't feel fully earned. Collette is the kind of casting coup that a film like this needs. The rest of the ensemble support her well, with newcomer Milly Shapiro having a big impact as Annie's strange daughter. Gabriel Byrne gives good hangdog, and Alex Wolff finds a compelling way to present a testing character.
For all the frustrating elements of the film's narrative, what can't be denied is the talent on display. Debut director Ari Aster shows himself to be one to watch, skillfully directing the weightier moments that give Hereditary its punch. He is aided by Colin Stetson's haunting score and Pawel Pogorzelski's cinematography, which give the film a compelling beauty. And it all comes together with the kind of editing that jars the film, giving it a nightmarish quality (the skills of Lucian Johnston and Jennifer Lame). I can't fault the film for the level of technical competence on display.
It is tough to review a film that is sometimes mad, fitfully brilliant and, in its second half, really quite maddening without ruining the cinematic experience. To give too much away would ruin what fun there is to be had with Hereditary, a film that will surprise you. But as skilful as it is, with the kind of performance from Collette that lingers long after the climax, it can't match the hype, can't quite sit alongside recent horror classics such as The Witch, The Babadook and It Follows.