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Stars: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd and Mallory Bechtel.
Writer/director: Ari Aster.

Rating 2.5/5

Last years ‘grief-fuelled descent into domestic relationship hell’ romp, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was met with such wildly divisive, mostly acrimonious opinions by patrons and critics alike, it is hard to believe that the commercial dice has been rolled again on a similar slow-burn, high-concept premise in Hereditary.

If the door was slammed shut on the ‘arthouse horror’ craze by the polemic reaction to the Jennifer Lawrence-meltdown pic, it is locked-and-bolted by Ari Aster’s debut feature. Despite an all-in performance by Toni Collette and enough production design to fill three haunted house films, Hereditary is a style-over-substance Rosemary’s Baby/Wicker Man riff riddled with tension-diluting inconsistencies and hamstrung by a holier-than-thou approach to horror tropes we’ve seen many times before.

The opening feels like a standard horror-movie kicker; the hardened matriarch of a strained nuclear family is being laid to rest, her daughter Annie (Collette) launching into a eulogy that doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture of her mother. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne, whose last dabbling in B-horror was back in 1999, with Stigmata and End of Days) is a dour, self-medicating type; her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), a typically surly, pot-smoking teen; her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro, her unique features exploited all over the marketing material), a troubled pre-teen with mental and physical health issues who for some reason feels the death of Grandma particularly deeply.

When tragedy doubles-down on the family, Annie is befriended by Joan (Ann Dowd, reliable), a member of her grief recovery group, who introduces her to the potential for comfort in conjuring the deceased via that hoary old spooky device, the séance. Soon, Annie is convinced she is a medium, her late-night glass-touching scaring her family and potentially welcoming the unwanted into her home.

By this stage of the narrative, Aster has afforded his audience one legitimately scary glimpse of a ghost, a few genuine frames of icky horror and a handful of red-herring chills, but the young director’s lethargic pacing becomes increasingly ponderous, with set-up after set-up deepening the convoluted backstory while disregarding forward momentum. Plot developments turn so arbitrary as to be ridiculous (does this large modern city have a police department? One character commits negligent homicide yet seems to just sleep it off); at one point, your critic sensed he was being Jacob’s-Laddered, but that brought it’s own set of incoherencies.

One supposes that Hereditary wants to be considered the same kind of enigmatic puzzle of a horror/thriller as The Sixth Sense (for which leading lady Toni Collette was Oscar-nominated). But M. Night Shyamalan’s hit unfolded with precision and earned its chills; Aster’s shot at genre creepiness amps up the artifice of filmmaking – the music; the set design; the lighting – to convey a faux dread. There is little regard for script structure, character or nuance, all the elements that Shyamalan corralled so expertly. Aster and DOP Pawel Pogorzelski (Tragedy Girls, 2017) share an artist’s eye for composition, but that only carries a film so far in the absence of other convincing components.

Hereditary shares its DNA with a family tree of more evolved films (throw into the mix The Amityville Horror, It Follows and The Others, if it helps), yet has none of the storytelling craft that turns its premise from the supernatural, psychological malarkey it is into an important, resonant piece of horror-as-drama. Actors bringing their big-voice presence in the service of a twisty mystery that is too impressed with its own cleverness does not make a great horror film. That’s all that’s left after Hereditary wraps its hellishly ridiculous, not-at-all scary denouement.

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