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For many people when asked to define the elements of horror, all too frequently the excessive reliance on blood, entails and various manifestations of gore are prominently placed on the list. Although this view is myopic and overtly skewed towards the visceral aspects of the genre, the far more effective way to induce fright in the viewer is the psychological approach. Admittedly, it is substantially more difficult to successfully achieved, when correctly done the results can instill in the audience a moment of terror that leaves a lasting impression. A person calls recall the details of a visceral shock it is nearly impossible to recreate that adrenaline rush that triggered the primitive ‘flight or fight’ response. In contrast, the terror that is formed and carefully nurtured in the dark recesses of your mind can remain terrifying. Thankfully, the lamentable reign of torture porn horror films is waning — movie constructed around senseless brutality. Ushered in by movies such as the ‘Saw’ franchise are no longer driving the horror genre, the film under consideration here, ‘Hereditary,’ is representative of the return of movies that require the audience to invest their concentration and full attention. ‘Hereditary’’ is best categorized as a supernatural psychological horror film, a specific genre that is exceptionally easy for the filmmaker to spiral off course into permitting the special effects to overshadow character development and elucidation of the plot elements. Fortunately for devotees of cinema, the screenwriter/director, Ari Aster, has scored a solid hit. It bears noting that this his feature directorial debut.

One of the most effective ways to tell a psychological thriller is through visual manipulation. I realize I just made a case against the use of visual effects in torture or slasher horror movies. In this instance, the visual usage is significantly subtler, nuance over overt gore. Mr. Aster performs this remarkable balancing act with incredible panache. The camera tracks through a comfortably appointed home, pulling out to reveal the audience has been ‘inside’ an incredibly detailed miniature. This is not a mundane doll house but a superbly precise, artistically crafted collector’s edition. This is a highly effective use of visual storytelling serving as a very efficient means of introducing a principle character while simultaneously providing requisite backstory. Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is a miniatures artist who lives in Utah with her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne); their 16-year-old son, Peter (Alex Wolff); and their 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Many movies devote considerable time to introduce each character, establishing the interrelationships slowly. The reason this method is considered permissible results from the primary rationale for the director are selecting it. The faux camera tracking shot intentionally deceived the viewer convivence them that the microcosm represented by the miniature was indeed reality. This efficiently and artistically establishes one of the major plot devices of the story; the story is related through a narrator not entirely trustworthy. This effect extends beyond the standard horror film caveat; death is not the end of a character, much of what transpires is intestinally misleading. The modus operandi employed concentrated on perspective, particularly of the effect relative perspective plays.

Misdirection is crucial to how the story unfolds. When Annie’s highly secretive mother suddenly dies, it seems that the dramatic impetus would emanate from her strained relationship, some dark secret behind her mother’s behavior or some combination. Instead, it elaborates on Annie’s emotional state and psychological issues. Annie sees a vision of her mother which is commonly a strong indicator that the principal source of supernatural terror will be the ghost of the secretive matriarch, but this nascent master of horror has a more convoluted path for the audience. One of the strengths of the core narrative is the attention to detail and the meticulous craftsmanship Mr. Aster imbued in every aspect of this film. This is his debut feature-length project which makes his accomplishment even more remarkable. I have noticed over the decades I’ve spent as a movie buff that filmmakers that begin their careers in short movies tend to have a better grasp of the process required to tell a captivating story. An artist with this background tend to naturally and seamlessly build the film through chapter-like segments; each one is distinct, yet they combine synergistically. Annie’s exposition continues as she attends a grief coping support group, she shares that many members o her family had a mental illness that ultimately leads to their deaths. In a very significant fashion, Annie’s vocation building miniatures reflect the process employed by the filmmaker. Precise attention to detail crafting the whole through perfectly made individual pieces.

Although typically associated with the gory, visceral horror movie, the venerable jump scare can be quite effective in quickly amplifying a pervading frightening atmosphere. In a family setting, it is perfectly normal for a kid sister to want to tag along with their older sibling. When Charlie demands Peter bring her along for his planned evening out. Peter told his mother it was a school function when it was a party. Peter was anxious to meet up with a girl from school, Bridget (Mallory Bechtel), his crush. With his attention completely focused on the lovely young woman, Peter entirely neglects Charlie. For the sake of experience, a plot contrivance is deployed, Charlie eats a cookie containing peanuts. She is severely allergic immediately going into anaphylactic shock. While rushing his sister to the hospital, he swerves to avoid a dead animal in the road just as Charlie hangs her head out of the car window, desperate for a breath of air. The instant\she leans over the open window the audience knows what her fate will be. In a wise departure from the common predilection to overly graphic effects, the result is made without dwelling on the grim details.

The story returns to Annie’s point of view and her support group meetings. She meets an older woman, Joan (Ann Dowd), who quickly befriends Annie, offering to help her with a recently increasing problem of sleepwalking. As the movie continues the sheer intriguing nature of the circumstances and the depth of character development inexorable pull you into the narrative. It is nearly impossible for a synopsis of this nature to do justice to the quality of the film or the imaginative treatment of the filmmaker. He can lead the audience to what appears to be a routine conclusion only to unsettle the viewer at the perfect moment defying expectations. Even after the final credits roll and you have watched the entire movie you will find yourself drawn to experience it again. Each viewing will uncover nuances missed previously or connection that are apparent only with hindsight. This film is a welcomed relief from all the slash and dash flicks that have dominated the genre for far too long. At last a work that requires thought and appreciation has arrived.

Posted    01/18/2019

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