19 June 2018

Clucking Hell

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When I was about eight years old I saw the Grim Reaper standing at the end of my bed as I was trying to sleep. I tried to convince myself that it was just the shadow from my dressing gown hanging off the back of my bedroom door, but as I lay frozen with fear I could see his arms moving back and forth, beckoning me. Obviously I screamed the fucking house down and as soon as there was a convenient ad break in her show, my Mum ran up the stairs to see what was the matter. This happened every night for the next few nights until my Mum eventually decided to solve the problem forever. Clearly her son was having some sort of nervous breakdown and clearly I was in need of some sort of therapist to help with the existential dread that I was so clearly facing. Anyway I was given a night light, told that the Grim Reaper was more interested in my Nan than he was me, and informed that I should stop acting like such a fucking pussy. I can't say I haven't seen death since because I'm pushing thirty now and so I see it every time I walk past a fucking mirror. But I still remember how frightened I was as I lay there not knowing what the shadowy figure wanted with me. The irony being that having discovered quite how much of a pain in the arse life can be, there are nights now in which I wake up and find myself annoyed not to find the hooded prick waiting for me.

I mention this only because the fear I felt whilst watching Hereditary was the same kind I felt all those years ago. I won't go too much into what the film is actually about because in honesty I didn't have a fucking clue going in to see it, and it was a genuinely amazing experience to discover it as it went on. I knew it was a horror movie but that could literally be anything from an alien invasion film to a third entry in the Sex And The City series. However the film begins with the death of a family's grandma and the effect that her legacy begins to have on them. Maybe the old hag has passed down her mental illness or maybe it's something a little spookier. Either way I was just surprised that her death had any impact at all. I'm not from the closest of families and so as far as I was aware the death of a grandparent was simply a way of merely preparing a child for the death of their first family pet. In this case the family consists of Toni Collette and Gabrielle Byrne as husband and wife, and Alex Wolf and Milly Shapiro as their two children. In case you don't recognise the younger actors then Alex Wolf is the kid from the new Jumanji with the terrifying pizza-boil mole on his face and Milly Shapiro is the girl that'll be haunting your fucking dreams from the second you've seen this film. It's also the relationship and tensions between these four main characters that the film is predominantly interested in, with the horror initially being in how we see this family violently fall apart like a leper's dick in a wanking competition.

There's one table scene in particular that already feels iconic to the genre in which Collette's character rages on her son with the kind of violence and vitriol that's only usually reserved for the fourth hour of a Monopoly game. And in many ways the film is about how a person deals with grief and who we hold responsible for those we've lost. I'll still never forgive my cousin for the time he deleted my save file on Pokemon Yellow. Prick. But unlike something like The Babadook, I wouldn't say that the entire subtext of the movie was that of mental illness. Collette's character makes a living from creating miniatures and from the opening shot of the film we're introduced to her family as they exist in a replica of the house that she's made. Now unless I completely missed the point of the film and Hereditary is actually a demented sequel to The Borrowers, then I'm going to assume this shot was in some way metaphorical. In which case, and based on some third act revelations, I suppose the obvious meaning here is that these people aren't as in control of their own lives as they think and exist to be manipulated. This is an idea that's further demonstrated by the fact that Collete's character sleep walks and is therefore not even in control of what she does when she should be unconscious in her bed. In a world in which Facebook is turning our every interaction into a commodity and Russia is fiddling with our elections like an old man after his blue pill then I'm sure you can see the real-life relevance.

Having seen and loved it though, I'd be surprised if this film was one that audiences end up embracing. Not because it's difficult to enjoy but because Hereditary is a proper film and most casual cinema-goers are used to their horror being a bit more in-your-face. Films like The Conjuring tend to have jump scares every few minutes to keep you awake and trick you into thinking you're actually scared. If jumping at a loud noise means you're actually frightened then my dog doing a random fart in the middle of the night would be the scariest thing ever. Hereditary is a film that takes its time to build up its tension by letting you get to know the characters. It seeds its story with clues as to where it might be going but then waits until you've forgotten before revealing what it's been secretly growing. Nor does it give you a quick cut to the scariest part of the scene instead choosing to hide its horror in the frame until you happen to clock it. And once you have spotted the creepy fucking thing in the background, or corner, or on the fucking ceiling it just keeps it there. That's why this film reminded me of when I would see the Grim Reaper because it was exactly the same experience. First you notice a slight movement or creepy shadow, then you slowly realise that it might be more than that, and then you just stare in fear of what the threat is actually going to do. The only difference this time was that I'd paid for the experience which, to my dear Mum's credit, I was never forced to do when I wanted to go to bed.

I should say that as scary as this film is I think it's being a little over-hyped in reviews and advertising right now which I obviously understand. But to call a film “too scary” or “a new generation's The Exorcist” might be overstepping the mark a little bit. In time this will all wash away and we'll only be left with the film, but as scary as I found it the only major threat to my heart-rate was the amount of cheese I've spent my life eating. Instead, the film leaves you with some pretty horrific imagery and a lot more doubt when you see something move after turning the lights off to go to bed afterwards. There's no doubt that the film has some pretty blatant influences from the ghosts of horror past with Don't Look Now, Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, and even The Exorcist. However in terms of its constant sense of unease I think that two more recent examples that it draws comparison with might be Ben Wheatley's Kill List and Robert Egger's The Witch. The reason that the film really works though is because first-time director Ari Aster manages to get some incredible performances out of his cast. Toni Collette is the obvious show stopper but it's the quieter Gabrielle Byrne who helps to sell everything by stoically reflecting our reaction to the horrors unfolding. The two younger actors are also incredible with Shapiro in particular managing to keep me on constant edge with something as simple as a clucking noise. I won't ruin anything but if, as I did, you think she's possessed by the spirit of every chicken murdered by KFC then the third act is going to be a fucking rollercoaster for you. Thanks for reading motherfuckers and see you next time.

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