The 50 best films of 2018 in the UK: No 10 – HereditaryIncreasing the sense of impending horror to almost unbearable intensity, Ari Aster’s terrifying debut caused convulsions – without a jump-scare in sight
Monday 10 December 2018
his year, first-time director Ari Aster gave us a scary movie which gave us all the delicious pleasures of big-screen fear, along with a killer lead performance. That perennially excellent actor Toni Collette gave us some of the best work of her career as Annie, a contemporary artist and miniaturist. She specialises in intricately wrought dioramas with scenes taken from her own life, all reduced to Lilliputian scale. Clearly, this artistic approach says something about her own control-freakery and dysfunction. Annie’s elderly mother, an unpleasant old woman with whom Annie and her husband did not particularly get on, has just died after a long history of dementia. But then she makes contact from beyond the grave, wanting somehow to take over Annie’s 13-year-old son, her grandson, and somehow claim him in the cause of evil.
The atmosphere of impending horror is terrifically managed – it has something of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. It doesn’t rely on the tired digital sound-stabs and jump-scares of lesser scary movies, but that isn’t to say that Aster is too grand to give us one or two old-fashioned cattle-prod jabs. I lurched and convulsed a couple of times, once at something so normally innocuous as the childlike sound of someone doing the clip-clopping sound of a horse. There are other excellent contributions from Gabriel Byrne, playing the stolid, supportive but careworn husband, from Milly Shapiro as their daughter Charlie, and also from Alex Wolff – already a familiar player in teen and YA movies – who is very good in this.
What the film’s satirical meanings are is an open question. The topic of dementia – how we should react to it and open up the conversation around it – has become more current. It could be that Hereditary is providing a complex, subversive slant on this issue. But I think it is more nihilist than that. It is more about the mental squeeze of middle-age, and the dark fear or even horror of older people, in the light of an increasingly undeniable truth that you are going to turn into one of them. When I first saw this, I wrote that it was like a death-metal version of Cries and Whispers, and the director has since revealed that he screened Cries and Whispers for the cast. Since then, I have found myself thinking more about Fanny and Alexander and its puppet theatre. There is something inexpressibly sinister about Annie’s miniatures, and the suspicion that these human beings are themselves just figures being moved around by the devil himself.