Tuesday 20 August 2019

Hereditary movie review: Horrific ending to a frighteningly good start

  • Hereditary (16, 127mins) - 3 stars
  • Studio 54 (No Cert, IFI, 98mins) - 4 stars
Going down in flames: Hereditary is fantastic until it falls into the usual horror movie traps
Going down in flames: Hereditary is fantastic until it falls into the usual horror movie traps
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Reviews have been gushing for first time director Ari Aster's horror film Hereditary, which has been compared to everything from The Exorcist to Rosemary's Baby and praised to the giddy skies. Initially, one can see why, because in a rather brilliant opening hour Aster resists resorting to the usual weary horror tropes, and builds a formidable wall of tension using less conventional means.

Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has just buried her mother, Ellen, and seems conflicted about her loss. "Should I be sad?" she asks her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) after the funeral: he just smiles knowingly, and shrugs. And when Annie asks her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) the same question, no one seems to know what to say. Ellen was an ambivalent figure, cold and mercurial, and may not have gone away at all: in, for me, the film's best scene, Annie thinks she sees her hovering in a dark corner, quivering in the half light and smiling unkindly.

Annie is a brittle woman, nervy and unpredictable and haunted by unspecified traumas in her past. She's a miniaturist artist and spends long hours constructing tiny versions of the family home. If this impassioned fiddling suggests a desire for control, Annie doesn't have much: Peter seems mildly hostile to her and young Charlie is an odd child, who hardly speaks and uses metal, wood and the heads of dead birds to make macabre miniature figures of her own.

As Annie struggles with her mother's passing, tragedy strikes again, and she's driven into the arms of Joan (Ann Dowd), a kindly-looking woman who feeds her tea and cake and convinces her that communication is possible with the dead. Is poor Annie losing her marbles, or might there really be a spirit world?

I really like the way that sound, light and clever editing are used to generate creeping dread in Hereditary's commendably efficient and original opening hour: Collette delivers a compellingly intense performance, an accident central to the story is superbly dealt with, and Aster teases us with half-glimpsed and sometimes imagined horrors.

But he's too clever for his own good, and late on discards his duty to his story and characters in favour of shocks and effects that feel both familiar and contrived. As a consequence, a film that was brooding and fascinating becomes silly, even risible: 90 minutes is usually the perfect length for a horror film, and this one runs for two hours.

I was surprised, too, once demonic activity is suspected, that no one had the good sense to call in the priests, who have a strong track record in this area. Bloody atheists.

- - - -

In New York City, bars and clubs appear and disappear like the seasons: most are forgotten, but a few leave haunting echoes. Studio 54 only lasted 33 months but would become the stuff of legend, and Matt Tyraneur's documentary tells the club's story wonderfully well. It was founded in April 1977 by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, two charming Brooklyn wide boys, and situated in a former opera house in what was then considered a dodgy part of midtown Manhattan.

Donald Trump was among the minor local celebrities who attended the opening, but things really kicked off when Mick Jagger threw a birthday party at Studio 54 for Bianca, who rode across the dance floor on a white horse. The day after there were queues around the block, and a ridiculously strict door policy only made the place seem more alluring.

In a time before Aids, drug binges and wild sex abounded inside, but it all ended badly for Schrager and Rubell, who were sent to prison for tax evasion. But before they went, Liza Minnelli and Diana Ross sang them a duet at a farewell party. Talk about going down in style.

Also out this week: Ocean's 8 movie review: All-female Ocean's not that greight

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