Hereditary (2018)

2019 #19
Ari Aster | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Hereditary

Unless I’m forgetting something, I think Hereditary was the most-discussed, most must-see horror movie of 2018, so if, like me, you’re only watching it now, you’re late to the party. Still, as with most horror films, the less you know the better for its effectiveness (not to mention there are so significant unexpected developments in the story, which even the marketing managed to hide for a change), so I’ll keep this review spoiler-free.

The film centres around a family living in a remote-looking part of Utah: mother Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her 16-year-old son Peter (Alex Wolff), and 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). After Annie’s sometimes-estranged mother dies, various family members begin to see and experience odd things, and… well, like I said, the less you know the better. Hereditary is the kind of horror movie that relies on the mood it builds up to unnerve you, so if you have too much of a head-start on the plot it’s like crippling the film’s ability to suck you in.

I do think it’s perhaps important to understand what kind of movie this is, though, because many of the negative reactions I’ve read seem to stem from misaligned expectations. Hereditary plays almost more like a family drama than a horror movie for a good while, albeit one with some scary moments and a general air of unease; of something about to go very wrong. You’ve likely heard how good Collette is in the film, how many people wanted her to get an Oscar nom, and this is really why. The storyline gives her a plausible character in a state of extreme emotional strain, and she plays this conflicted, broken woman with just the right balance of subtlety and explosive emotion. Credit, too, to the rest of the lead cast, who are more understated, but in a way that brings necessary balance. They may be less showy, but their contribution is vital. First-time writer-director Ari Aster has been hailed as a great new voice in horror filmmaking, but I’d wager if he went on to do straight dramas we’d be just as fortunate.

Toni Collette

As things go on, naturally the background creepiness increasingly edges into the foreground. There are even jump scares that got me, and I can’t remember the last time a horror movie managed to get me with a jump scare — and one of them was purely auditory. This movie made me begin to hate my surround sound system. If you watch with out one, you are losing some of the impact, frankly. But even worse than the jumps are the things you see coming, or gradually come to notice are there; the stuff you see but then have to wait for what’s going to happen. There are situations and images here that will haunt your memories after viewing. It’s this overall unsettling atmosphere that will keep you on the edge of your seat for much of the runtime; more like, say, The Shining than a blood-and-guts fairground ghost ride.

If there’s one place it missteps, it’s perhaps the final act. Some people have accused it of a tonal shift here, or even of being “goofy”. I agree that it spirals quite quickly from “family drama with a bit of the supernatural” to bringing everything to a head, and many of the most outright “horror” bits are in this final act, but it still kept me uncomfortably on edge. (I know I said I’d keep this spoiler free, but, fair warning, I’m going to allude to the ending now. Jump to the final paragraph to avoid all that.) The only time that tension dissipated was in the very last scene, which I don’t think was the intention — it’s not meant to come as a relief, but by finally answering some questions and putting some things out in the light, it kind of lets you come to terms with them. It’s also a little, for want of a better word, daft; or, as that other person said, goofy. Most of Hereditary is truly unsettling, even when it’s not being outright scary, so it’s kind of a shame it didn’t have a final moment that maintained that unease.

Milly Shapiro

I say it “answers some questions”, but it’s not an exposition-fest that explains everything that’s been going on. That may well lead you to start interrogating the plot afterwards to fill in some of the gaps, and I’m not sure it all hangs together. I’m all for films that leave audiences to use their imagination and intelligent thought to fill in holes themselves (and by “holes” I don’t mean “plot holes”, just things the film hasn’t explicitly explained), but when you start trying to plug gaps and find it doesn’t add up, maybe the film should’ve explained something more. Or maybe it’s a movie about the unknowable and so, of course, we can’t know it all. An individual’s own taste will vary on how much this matters: some people won’t spend any time turning the story over after the film ends, in which case it’s conclusive enough as it is; others can write it off as, as I said, the unknowableness of the supernatural; others still might find the apparent gaps undermine the whole experience. I sit somewhere between the latter two stools, because I don’t think you notice the gaps until you begin to think back over the logic of what must’ve occurred, and I don’t think the lingering questions retrospectively undermine the potency of the movie-watching experience, but it is a shame it doesn’t seem to all add up.

It’s these questions that were going to hold me back from giving Hereditary full marks, but I’m not sure that’s fair. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. Even then Hereditary’s destination isn’t bad, it’s just not perfect. And the journey to get there… As a horror movie, it’s one of the most genuinely unsettling I’ve seen for some time, with imagery that makes my hair stand on end just remembering it. It’s all the more effective for the way it grounds itself in real-life tragedy, with a powerhouse performance from Collette that, yes, if it were in a straightforward indie drama would surely be a frontrunner this awards season.

5 out of 5

Hereditary is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from today.

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Cool World (1992)

2016 #70
Ralph Bakshi | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Cool WorldSometime recently, I said I was making more of an effort to avoid watching movies I know are going to be bad — when there’s so much good stuff to see, why knowingly waste time on bad stuff? But then sometimes something just catches your attention and you have to see for yourself. It sounds as if no one had anything good to say about Cool World when it came out back in 1992, and no one’s had anything good to say about it since either, but after spotting it on Netflix (I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before that) my curiosity was piqued.

Directed by Ralph Bakshi, who’s probably best known for the animated Lord of the Rings, it’s the story of cartoonist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) who’s created the zany, surreal ‘Cool World’. But Cool World is actually a real place (a real cartoon place, as it were), which Jack ends up getting transported to. He meets femme fatale Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) who wants to escape to the real world, but is being prevented from doing so by Frank (Brad Pitt), another real human who was transported to Cool World decades earlier.

If this all sounds a bit of a mess, it is. It’s not a fundamentally bad story at a conceptual level, but its execution is a jumble, and the twisted Cool World is an unpleasant place to have to spend time. The darkness of the story is actually toned down from Bakshi’s original concept (which had an underground cartoonist fathering a half-real / half-cartoon daughter who tries to kill him), but only so much: it’s still full of sex, references to sex, Holli Would, and she willand general depraved behaviour. It’s clear it got caught in the crossfire between a creator/director who wanted to make a hard-R adults-only animated/live-action movie, and a star and producer who wanted to make something they could show to sick kiddies in hospital. The end result surely satisfies neither, because it pulls some punches to not get that R, but there’s no way this is kid-friendly.

It came out a few years after Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and suffers from the comparison. It’s not just that Cool World is a less successful riff on the same concept, or that its storytelling is more muddled, but it’s less technically proficient too. The animation and live-action elements never gel as well as in Roger Rabbit, with plenty of lazy eye-lines and actions not quite lining up. This probably explains why Byrne and Pitt both give lacklustre performances, not that Basinger fares any better.

There’s some interesting stuff in Cool World, which is why I haven’t sunk it to the irredeemable depths of a single star, but the merits are slight and not worth the effort. Apparently it does have something of a cult following, though, so the adventurous may still feel it’s worth a visit.

2 out of 5

Cool World featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

2009 #30
Randall Wallace | 132 mins | download | 12 / PG-13

The Man in the Iron MaskFrom the off it’s clear that The Man in the Iron Mask is not going to go well. It’s an adaptation of a tale of the Three Musketeers, so naturally is set in historical Paris… where everyone has a different accent and very few of them are French. It is, to be blunt, a horrid mishmash — much like the whole film.

Wordy political intrigue tries to coexist with broad comedy which is squashed against swashbuckling adventure. The latter two could co-exist, but the film feels like it wants to be the former and so suffers for it. The comedy jars too much to be effective, while instances of unintentional comedy unfortunately provoke more frequent laughs. It should at least be able to swash buckles effectively — these are the Three Musketeers after all — but entirely fails to achieve this until the climax. The plot, semi-faithfully adapted from one of Alexandre Dumas’ original novels, offers a level of complexity to which the film clearly aspires, but the adaptation and acting struggle to match it.

The majority of performances are marred by overacting — John Malkovich, especially, is woefully miscast, while Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t appear to give a particularly good performance as either Louis or Philippe. In DiCaprio’s defence I suspect this is actually the script’s fault, because he manages to clearly differentiate the two when they are silent or pretending to be the other — it’s when they open their mouths that it all goes wrong. Gérard Depardieu is fine as the comic relief, though that relief is tonally misplaced, while Gabriel Byrne makes an interesting d’Artagnan — there’s nothing at all wrong with him, and yet he doesn’t feel quite right. Which leaves just Jeremy Irons among the main cast. He fares the best of the lot, even getting the occasional scene or speech that is genuinely quite good, though it’s clear he is far better than the material. To be fair, the same is also true of everyone else.

For all this, The Man in the Iron Mask is more disappointing then bad. The Bastille-set climax is occasionally brilliant and never less than entertaining, delivering on the film’s swashbuckling promise in a copious fashion. Throughout, there’s the occasional good scene — or even just a decent line of dialogue — and you can briefly understand what inspired such quality actors to sign on.

Something went wrong somewhere though, and the obvious culprit must be writer/director Randall Wallace. The story’s good, but that’s Dumas’, while the adaptation’s weak — and that’s Wallace’s. The actor’s are good, but battle the poor script — and that, obviously, is Wallace’s. They don’t seem to have been given any significant direction, they’re not helped by an uneven tone, and even the cinematography falls short, failing to make the spectacular locations and costumes look suitably beautiful on screen — and we know who’s ultimately in charge of all that too.

The Man in the Iron Mask desperately wants to be better than it is — it’s a great tale, packed with politics and swashbuckling, and this particular version has the high calibre cast to pull it off. But both are left floundering by a writer/director who isn’t up to either task — poor dialogue, a gyratingly uneven tone and lacklustre direction abound. A missed opportunity, and all the more disappointing for it.

2 out of 5