A few years back, while writing about Cosmotropia de Xam’s Delirium (2015), I said, “Everything new is definitely old again. Today’s horror films resemble yesterday’s horror films.” Although the piece dealt with filmmakers like Peter Strickland and Nicolas Winding Refn creating mongrel movies out of a palimpsest of citations and references, this sentiment still rings true, and, aside from a few filmmakers (M. Night Shyamalan, Jordan Peele, Lucile Hadžihalilović come to mind), I wonder if horror is a bankrupt genre at this point in time. Certainly, Ari Aster’s much touted, overhyped, oversold and over-marketed Hereditary (2018) doesn’t convince me otherwise.
The film begins with death — or rather the announcement of a death. Over a black screen, an obituary in white text states the cold, hard facts of Ellen Graham’s demise, where her burial services will be held, and most importantly, who her surviving relatives are. Although none of the family members feel really anything with grandma’s passing, her death initiates a string of uncanny, increasingly shocking events that will tear them apart.
With Ellen gone, the Graham clan tries to carry on as if everything were normal. Annie (Toni Collette giving a deliciously exaggerated performance), artist and now matriarch of the family, returns to her work, assembling hyper-real dioramas (calling to mind Frances Glessner Lee’s morbid models of crime scenes). She tends to her two kids: the adolescent Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and the teenaged Peter (Alex Wolff). When evening rolls around, she lies to husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), telling him that she’s going to a movie when in fact she attends group therapy sessions for those recovering from a lost loved one.
Chomping on chocolate bars, popping her tongue (sort of like drag performer Alyssa Edwards) and playing by herself, Charlie is ostracized at school but favored by Annie at home. Alternatively moody and taciturn, Peter smokes dope with friends and stares at the girl that he has a crush on in class — the typical teen. Overseeing his wife and kids with the neutrality of a referee is Steve, who becomes the voice of reason in times of conflict.
And yet nothing is normal, nothing is as it seems. A dead bird, spectral figures perched in the corner of rooms, a book on spiritualism — the increasing incidents and discoveries lead to a confrontation between members of the family, revealing the inner workings of a deeply disturbed household.
Hereditary is a numbing experience. It attempts to unsettle, shock and terrify — and it does so mildly well. And yet that seems like the only goal. This is a film that strives to instill dread in viewers, and yet all I see is the mechanics of horror (even if Aster doesn’t consider himself a director of the genre), of the filmmaking, and nothing behind it — save for other films and filmmakers. What hampers Hereditary’s single-mindedness is how derivative it is. Wide shots — static and panning, precise and symmetrical — situate characters in a given space, rendering them as equal to their surroundings, and recalls The Shining (1980). The film performs a sudden narrative shift, from a nervy chamber drama to something that resembles a far more diluted version of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
Colin Stetson provides an atonal, dissonant, and by this point in the genre’s history, typical score for a horror film. Lensed by Pawel Pogorzelski, Hereditary has a harsh look, with sharp lines and contours illuminated with gunmetal blue and amber lighting (the film suffers from a mild orange and teal color scheme). Along with the miniatures, the setting (all scenes take place on a set specifically built for the film except for those at home) and cinematography resemble a pale imitation of Gregory Crewdson’s photography.
Today’s horror looks and acts like yesterday’s horror. Filmmakers like Trey Edward Shults, Adam Wingard and now Aster co-opt the look, textures and rhythms of John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and Stanley Kubrick films without sufficiently transcending the influence of the older generation. What’s truly terrifying about Hereditary is how empty it really is.
Tanner Tafelski (@TTafelski) is a film writer and journalist based in New York City. He frequently contributes to Hyperallergic, Kinoscope and The Village Voice. Find him on Instagram, Letterboxd and WordPress.