Atmosphere V. Plausibility in Horror
Reviewed by Jeremy Billingsley
Critics and fans have called 2018’s Hereditary a truly classic horror film on the level with The Exorcist, but that is a broad claim and one I want to challenge here. Written and directed by Ari Aster and starring Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne, Hereditary tells the story of Annie (Collette), mother of two and an artist working in miniature sculptures of real buildings who has just lost her mother, a woman that was secretive and with whom Annie had a fractured relationship.
Atmospherically, the whole movie works. Adventurous camera angles and shots add flavor to the movie (the film opens on a scale model of the family home and zooms into the teenage son’s bedroom, with a seamless transition into the actual bedroom as the father enters). The music enhances the atmosphere appropriately, but what is most effective is the lack of dependence on “jump scares.”
I have a particular aversion to “jump scares” in horror. To me they are cheap thrills, as the film quiets only for the character on the screen to be attacked as suddenly the audience is deafened by a blaring of noise. It is the noise, truthfully, more than the attack itself, that causes the jump. And while this movie has some, they don’t make up the whole of the horror of the film, but, rather, punctuate the atmosphere and unsettling feeling of this family as they deal with grief piled on grief.
Counterpoint to the “jump scare,” Annie goes to a friend’s apartment and witnesses a séance that is completely disturbing, thanks in part to Collette’s unhinged performance and her friend’s joy over spiritual contact.
But when I speak of plausibility, I am not speaking to one’s belief in the supernatural. Rather, I’m speaking to every other convention outside of the supernatural, the day to day that connects the film to the real world, that is even more important in works of fantasy and the supernatural. Without giving away spoilers, the death of one character fairly early in the movie happens in such a cartoonishly implausible way, and the subsequent reaction by another character, completely happened outside the realm of probability and took me out of the movie. Heads don’t just pop off and, logistically, at the speed the car was going, it should have ricocheted off the telephone pole. Yes, the character would have still died, but what happened on screen looked like something out of Looney Tunes.
Why is this important? Because I, and going out on a limb here, perhaps others in the audience, don’t want to accept the supernatural. Now in the 21st Century, me and like-minded movie-goers walk into such movies with bemused expressions and arms crossed, daring the horror story to scare us. We look for any reason to take us out of the story, to wave it off. We are jaded and cynical. A part of us is already going to scoff when the supernatural monster appears, no matter how invested in the story we are; therefore, it is that much more important that every “real” detail be as accurate as possible. Characters have to act true to form, and events have to occur in the preordained physics of the movie.
Ultimately, as effective as the tonal setting of the film is, its willingness to eschew physics at its convenience only hinders the movie more once you consider the leaps and bounds it takes narratively. What kind of horror movie is this: psychological, ghost story, witches and covens, cult, demon possession? Ask the director and he’ll just say, “Yes.” But there isn’t enough connective tissue to suture the various narrative threads. I’m not done absorbing the fact that it could be a psychological ghost story when the idea of a coven is introduced.
With regard to performance, Collette and Byrne are terrific. They deliver powerful performances and stay true to character throughout the film. Equally terrific is Ann Dowd as Joan, the woman who befriends Annie from the support group. The child actors are phenomenal as well, though I don’t blame Alex Wolff’s choice in the questionably plausible scene on his acting ability as I blame it on the script. He delivers a perfect performance as a teen dealing with incredible loss as his mother becomes more and more unhinged.
Aster has relatively few credits to his name, having officially entered the business in 2011. He’s garnered praise as a writer and director of films, as well as editor of some of those films. He is an adequate storyteller, but directorially what I want to see is more of that plausibility in what I’ll call the mundanity of the world that exists outside of the supernatural. I also want to see more impact from the younger actors. Milly Shapiro is great in her limited role as Charlie, but a lot is thrust onto the shoulders of Wolff’s character, Peter. He delivers a wonderfully dramatic dialogue while engaging with his mother over the dinner table, but later is asked to show the nuances of being possessed (one of the big reveals of the final act), but until this is acknowledged by another character on screen, I admittedly had no idea that this was the case. In the hands of a more seasoned director, the nuances of the performance would have suggested this idea of possession long before the reveal, but here I felt blindsided by this turn.
Still, Hereditary is an ambitious effort, and a great study in horror. Few modern films live up to what Aster sought to accomplish here, and for the atmosphere alone, the film is worth viewing. Studying the acting performances and the suspense scenes would also serve the viewer. But as worthy it is to view, it serves also as a cautionary tale that makers of such films must pay attention to the reality of the mundanities of life in order to keep their films grounded and hence more accepted by viewers.