Much hype surrounds the arrival of the thinking-ghoul’s scarefest, “Hereditary.” Don’t believe it. Somewhere between here and Sundance, where Ari Aster’s writing-directing debut had the sycophants tripping over their Mukluks, the not-as-clever-as-it-thinks horror pic appears to have shed a few integral chromosomes.
Either that, or “Hereditary” is yet another example of critics allowing the rarified mountain air to create a townwide brain freeze in picturesque Park City, Utah. But here at sea level, “Hereditary” exposes itself as just another hodgepodge of other people’s ideas cherry picked and tossed into a boiling brew of horror tropes. Boo.
It may find favor with fans picking up on the nods to Aster’s favorite movies: Like the tiny model home from “The Amityville Dollhouse”; the psychological destruction of a family wracked by grief from “The Babadook”; the severed head from “Alien”; the overly solicitous matron from “Rosemary’s Baby”; and the eerie supernatural happenings from “The Exorcist.” But if you’re looking for something fresh and original, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Not that Aster doesn’t do a tremendous job designing and executing these obvious odes, but the whole movie is the equivalent of a Beatles cover band; a great facsimile, but, like “Strawberry Fields,” it’s “nothing to get hung about.” Except, that is, for Toni Collette as Annie, the matriarch of a family that has endured generations of bad luck and mental illness. It just might be the Aussie’s finest work, as she takes us on a gradual descent into deprivation and madness.
It begins with an obit for Annie’s 78-year-old mother, Ellen, a woman she never held dear, even after taking Mom in once she was diagnosed with dementia. She also resents her demented Granny for getting “her hooks” into her daughter, Charlie, a macabre 13-year-old who Tony-winner Milly Shapiro (“Matilda”) renders as a possessed Linda Blair-type moping around producing gruesome drawings and snipping the heads off dead birds with a scissor. She’s hilarious, fitting in nicely with Aster’s subtle comedic rhythms. And you truly miss her presence once she’s sent off on a long journey much too early.
Not to worry. The always wonderful Ann Dowd (Aunt Lydia from “The Handmaid’s Tale”) is all too happy to pick up the slack with her equally funny turn as an overly solicitous member of Annie’s grief-counseling group. Channeling Ruth Gordon from “Rosemary’s Baby,” Dowd’s Joan is troublingly helpful, singling out Annie for her grandmotherly bromides about death and the spirits left behind. Oh, and what a great medium whenever you need call a séance. She may not move mountains, but she’s pretty good at making chalk and drinking glasses glide gracefully untouched across her kitchen table.
Are you scared yet? I wasn’t, but then more than half of the audience I saw “Hereditary” with didn’t seem to grasp the underlying humor and went straight to shaking in their boots. Oh, how I wish I could be like them, so easily frightened. Perhaps then I could fully understand why horror pictures are second only to superheroes in generating box-office gold. But I digress. Whether I was scared or not isn’t the matter. What “the point” is, is that Aster isn’t really offering anything new, like say great neo-horror like “The Babadook,” “It Follows” and “Get Out.” Heck, at this point, I don’t even consider Aster in the same conversation as M. Night Shyamalan, whose “The Sixth Sense” (also starring Collette) and “The Split” are more unsettling than anything here.
I will, however, give much due to Aster for his remarkable ability to create atmospherics, establishing a mood of uneasiness and continuing to up the ante — until throwing it all away in his film’s laughably awful final 10 minutes. Until then, he, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, composer Colin Stetson and production designer Grace Yun succeed in keeping you rapt in suspense and feelings of dread. You eagerly await the next shoe to drop, but when it does, it never surpasses the fun of the setup. It’s equally dispiriting to see Gabriel Byrne wasted so terribly as Annie’s pragmatic husband, Steve. He’s the Marilyn Munster here, the fish out of insane waters. It’s almost like he’s dead from the start.
And speaking of DNA, are we really supposed to believe he’s the father of his dark, swarthy, curly haired 17-year-old son, Peter (Alex Wolff)? Better let us see the mailman, milkman; or any man assisting Annie in her day job as an artist specializing in creating elaborate dollhouses. Might one of those men be the real father? It certainly can’t be Steve, the only human in the household who isn’t either visited by ghosts, sent levitating, getting bloody or playing with fire.
I won’t spoil anything for you, although I’m not certain that I could, given how convoluted Aster’s script becomes, as he hurriedly attempts to squeeze in more and more hosannas to mentors Stanley Kubrick (“The Shining”), Nicolas Roeg (“Don’t Look Now”), Roman Polanski (“Rosemary’s Baby”), William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) and just about everything from the Hammer Film library. It makes for a nice tribute, but what about you, Ari Aster? What do you have to give? They were innovators with a vision. All you are is a copycat. A terrific copycat, but a copycat just the same. Your heroes are on a level with The Beatles. All you are is Oasis.
Cast includes Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd and Milly Shapiro.
(R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity.)