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'Hereditary' Review: A strange, deeply unsettling, and thoroughly terrifying horror film

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The first time Hereditary was put on my radar was a trailer before A Quiet Place. The film that followed was thoroughly enjoyable, but the audience was left partially distracted just by some of the imagery from the trailer before it. The bird, the mouth sounds, the ants, it put everyone completely on edge. Then I learned it would be shown at the Overlook Film Festival where I'd be attending in a month, and I was overjoyed. Hereditary was the closing film of the festival, and for very good reason: I couldn't imagine seeing anything else after it, let alone look anyone in the eye. 

The film begins just as the trailer does, with Annie Graham (played with nail-biting intensity by Toni Collette) bringing her family to her mother's funeral. Through her eulogy, we get the sense that Annie isn't terribly distressed over the loss of her mother, a "very secretive and private woman." To say that this film is partially about the oddity of grief and how it effects us in waves is an understatement, strangely finding a companion in another recent grief-via-family film, Manchester by the Sea

The film follows the Graham family as they navigate a life where Annie and her teenage children, played by Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro, are forced to face a long history of mental illness on their mother's side of the family, all of which seems to have bubbled up since the funeral. Meanwhile Annie's husband, played with reserved coolness by Gabriel Byrne, must contend with the fact that something is objectively wrong with his family. New faces come into play, new fears, new anxieties, or maybe they were always there and these characters haven't had a name for them yet.

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Everyone in the cast is astoundingly on point here. I've never seen a performance quite as dedicated as the one given by Toni Collette, who also produced the film. She owns every word, every movement of her character, and becomes an unsettling and terrifying force unto herself, a parent unsure of what to make of the world around her, the one she's helped create, the one passed on to her. Alex Wolff is a wonder as well, playing a teenage boy who hasn't quite fit in to the same sex-dominated world as his peers, a young man who becomes entangled and drowned in a guilt I've not seen on screen before. Milly Shapiro is a miracle, diving deep into the weird world her character inhabits, floating in and out of scenes, trying to be invisible to those around her, cripplingly uncomfortable in her own body. None of which would work without Gabriel Byrne, trying everything in his power to keep the family level, make sense of things, and not play into the demons and ghosts his wife and children seem to have inherited.

Above all, the film posits some upsetting questions: What do you do if you don't particularly like your children? What do you do if you suspect someone in your family is a danger to themselves or others? What do you do if you know something's wrong with you, if you know you can't trust your own mind, but you feel you're in danger all the same? 

The trailer and plot synopsis are both purposefully vague, as any more information would completely change the way you approach the film, and that's a good thing. Several of my film peers are hesitant, being burned before by such misrepresenting ad campaigns for It Comes At Night and The Witch (both of which I thoroughly enjoyed while also acknowledging that the trailers were a bit misleading, It Comes At Night especially), but I can promise you that going in as blind as possible is for the best. What you'll get in return is a truly terrifying experience, all centered around very real familial drama. Even scenes that would normally serve as exposition end up being uniquely horrifying simply due to the mindset of these characters, specifically for Toni Collette, who seems like she could snap at any moment. Thankfully the film sprinkles in bits of humor that point at the ridiculousness of the entire situation, for all of which the audience was incredibly grateful. 

After the film was over we attended a party sponsored by A24, and I don't think there was a single person in attendance who wasn't still shaking long after the movie was over. Conversations were interesting an enlightening for sure, but everything was clouded by the fact that we had just witnessed one of the greatest and most effective horror films of the past few years, and we weren't sure how we were going to ever get through a family holiday again. 

Look for Hereditary in theaters June 8th. And call your mother more often. 

'A Quiet Place' Review - A Surprising Dive into Visual Storytelling

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To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock when speaking on suspense: "There is a distinct difference between suspense and surprise. If two people are having a conversation at a table and suddenly a bomb under the table goes off, that's surprising, but then it's over. But if you tell the audience there is a bomb under the table at the beginning, you've completely changed the scene, and they'll hang on every word." 

And so it is with A Quiet Place, the new horror film directed and co-written by John Krasinski, wherein we are treated to some of the most effected foreshadowing and visual storytelling we'll see this year. 

Set in the not-too-distant year of 2020, the film takes place in rural upstate New York (the main location filmed in Beacon), where Earth has been invaded by predators who hunt by sound. Though blind, the creatures are so sensitive to sound that anything above a bare-footed walk on dirt will send them hurtling toward the source. 

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Holed-up together are Krasinski and Emily Blunt with their three children, including deaf actor Millicent Simmonds (whom Krasinski insisted on casting)The family's ironic advantage to this situation is, due to their daughter's condition, they already know sign language and can communicate silently with each other. I imagine the amount of spoken (and unspoken) dialogue in this film would fit within 5 pages. 

There are several things done well with this film, thankfully none of them require me to spoil anything, which is due simply to the fact that the film is told so efficiently that there's almost nothing to spoil. There are aliens (?), they hunt based on sound, a family has set up a system that allows total silence, they have to survive when things go wrong, that's it. 

To say specifically what the family's system is would spoil what are otherwise "oh would you look at that!" moments in the film, suffice to say there are several moments of utter brilliance that evolve as the story moves forward. 

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What I can say is that every film student should see this, it should be added to the curriculum of every film studies and production program, and it should be remembered every time you're about to put words to script. There are certain filmmakers who use dialogue in really interesting ways which add to the characters we're following; The Coen Brothers, Scorsese, Sorkin, you know them. I would not fault any young filmmaker who strives to emulate them, but more often than not film students will rely on their characters explaining how they feel and why they do what they are doing. I'm guilty of this, it's something I've been struggling with as a writer for years, and this film is a stellar reminder in how to show the audience the story without telling it to them. It works not just because the characters are forced to stay silent, but because the visuals are so strikingly effective in how they set up the plot and move things forward. 

The sound design is, of course, a major star here. The audience in my theater didn't dare utter a whisper or shift in their seat during the entire screening, while hushed gasps came in place of outright screams. Sound in this film has such an oppressive and startling weight that even the slightest thing out of place feels like a shout. Sounds that should otherwise be almost inaudible are mixed to appear much louder than they would in real life, accenting and underlining just how imperative it is to silence it as soon as possible. Yes, some of these come off as cliched jump scares (honestly there are only 2 that are completely unnecessary), but they are the exception to the rule. 

But greater than the sound is the foreshadowing this film utilizes. The first half of the film is devoted to setting up pieces that are doomed to come tumbling down, a balancing act so fine-tuned and precarious that the audience has no idea the kind of payoff they're about to be gifted (or cursed by) later on. I have to be vague here, but there's one element in particular that is shown to the audience fairly early on that got an audible "no" from somewhere in the theater, something that we knew was going to come up later, something we've all encountered before in our lives, something somehow worse than the killer aliens, and we were on the edge of our seats for every scene that took place after because we just didn't know when it was going to come into play again. 

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A huge congratulations to John Krasisnki for pulling this off and absolutely nailing his first foray into the horror genre. Maybe it'll be lightning in a bottle for him, but I'm looking forward to whatever he brings next.