Haunted house films thrive on suggestion, blurring the line between our perception and a theoretically objective reality. It’s debatable whether or not there are any supernatural presences at all in, say, Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents,” an astonishing gothic horror film that suggests that our pasts are themselves demons and capable of making us monsters. “The Innocents” abounds in mystery and a sense of fleeting indirection that causes us to question every shadow and flicker of light, allowing us to empathize with the fractured psyches of the protagonists.
Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” occasionally evokes “The Innocents,” though it reflects a contemporary strand of horror filmmaking that requires demons to be explicitly material and for jump scares to arrive on cue. There’s no suggestiveness or lightness of being on display here. Pummeling and relentlessly literal-minded, “Hereditary” devolves from mildly intriguing to wearying to numbing to unintentionally laughable.
Aster aims for “The Innocents” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and lands closer to something like James Wan’s “The Conjuring.” As blunt as Wan’s direction often is -- he’s also responsible for the first “Saw” and “Insidious” and its first sequel -- he appears to know that he’s the horror film equivalent of a carnival barker and allows himself to have a little fun on occasion. By contrast, Aster wishes to be regarded as an artist, and so he lards “Hereditary” with signifiers and gimmicks that are meant to underscore his showmanship and high-mindedness.
For instance, the film’s troubled matriarch, Annie (Toni Collette), makes a living building doll houses for art galleries because Aster admires Wes Anderson and feels the need to justify his pilfering of Anderson’s lateral panning shots and propensity for rendering actors as figures in group tapestries. Aster’s compositions are superficially accomplished but lifeless, revealing nothing about characters who’re defined only by a ludicrous junk pile of traumas that are necessary to get the film to its gory punchline.
The film’s woodland house setting is memorable, evoking the ultimate of Annie’s dollhouses, with plenty of negative space for hiding demons or people who can suddenly fly for some reason. Aster’s preoccupation with evil hallways, á la “The Shining,” complements the Anderson dollhouse motif, and these tics intentionally underscore the fact that “Hereditary” is a contraption -- a figment of a horror-film aficionado’s imagination. We’re led to believe that Annie or other members of her family might be insane, or, more post-modernly, are actually actors trapped in a self-important horror film. It might have been quite chilling if one of Annie’s children were to randomly call her “Toni.” But Annie’s psychology changes by the demands of the film’s set pieces, and notions of variable reality are of interest to Aster only in terms of delivering a twist ending.
“Hereditary” is choked to death by Aster’s determination to create an event. Aster is especially pleased with the emotional sadism of his characters, who are so miserable and hopeless from the outset that nothing seems to be at stake in the narrative. Annie tells her teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), that she never wanted him, and later confesses to something of grandiose awfulness, inspiring one to wonder how this family maintained even a pretense of functionality for so long. Peter accidentally hurts his morose younger sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), in a chain of absurd events that might have invigorated the creators of the gleeful “Final Destination” films, though Aster stages the sequence as high, bland tragedy. By the time “Hereditary” reaches its nadir, Aster is proffering welcome mats as a harbinger of evil.
Aster neglects the most important lessons of the classics that inspired him. For all the film’s flamboyant cruelty, “The Shining” exhibits ambiguity, hinting at a vaster cosmic evil that’s beyond our understanding. “Rosemary’s Baby” is orchestrated with an observational subtlety that lowers your guard for an encroaching nightmare of invasion. Both films are also quite funny. Aster attempts to inflate his derivativeness with humorlessness, plodding pacing, and a score that assaults you with the usual synth thumping.
It’s difficult to account for the film’s acclaim, except that critics seem to be mistaking its fussy unpleasantness for profundity. Aster’s faux-seriousness strands Collette, who probably should’ve gone one of two ways with her performance. She could have taken the Jack Nicholson route of “The Shining,” playing Annie’s encroaching madness so broadly as to fashion a terrifyingly unpredictable vaudeville. Or she might have gone in the opposite direction, emulating Shelley Duvall of the same film by grounding the lurid narrative in a disconcertingly vulnerable naturalism. Collette takes a vague middle road, giving a shrill and hysterical performance that’s destined to become meme fodder.
As a friend recently remarked, every year supposedly brings the next “Exorcist” or “Shining” or “Night of the Living Dead” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which are usually forgotten by the time the next impersonator hits the screens. Modern horror filmmakers need to wean themselves off the genre’s greatest hits and attempt to brave new terrain. Otherwise, what films will serve to inspire Generation Z?