Talking Movies

June 24, 2018

Notes on Hereditary

Hereditary is the horror film proving perfect counterprogramming for the World Cup. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle early this morning.

Ari Aster makes an impressive debut as writer/director, but while the marketing pushes it as this generation’s Exorcist there’s actually a lot more of The Shining in Hereditary’s cinematic DNA. Toni Collette is the parent going mad in a huge house, constructed on a soundstage to allow for fluid tracking shots, with much unnerving imagery and fear so intense that terrified screams remain silent. Aster is an incredibly patient director. There are a lot sustained close-ups of reaction shots before the camera slowly pans to reveal the source of the character’s terror. And, like Sinister, you find yourself an hour into the movie having been scared profoundly by tricks of the light or perfectly natural accidents or coincidences, nothing supernatural. But then Aster puts his foot down on the pedal and, as all films like The Babadook must it sees, abandons the terror of ambiguity for the terror of supernatural mayhem. Although it must be noted tremendous unease is generated simply by jarring jump transitions between the same locations in Utah at night and morning.

Hereditary at its best is imbued with a sense of creeping unease, and a profound fear on the part of Toni Collette’s character that the mental health problems that have afflicted her family are flaring up in her under the extreme stress of bereavement. Hereditary may indeed be a film for an older audience than the teen horrors like Truth or Dare that are a staple at the multiplexes, as the true horror that is the subtext of what it fantastically depicts needs some life experience to fully hit home with any sort of jolt of recognition. Not everybody has skeletons as extreme as schizophrenia or disassociative identity disorder lurking in their family closet but depression is a black dog that finds a home most anywhere. Collette is outstanding in the lead as an artist trying to process the multiplying horrors of her life by sublimating them into a gallery show, but constantly dealing with the nerve-shredding anxiety – are these things really happening or am I just going crazy like my mother and my brother?

I didn’t get to chat about all of these points, but we did cover most of them. Tune into 103.2 FM to hear Patrick Doyle’s breakfast show every Sunday on Dublin City FM, and catch up with his excellent Classical Choice programme on Mixcloud now.

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October 23, 2014

The Babadook

Writer/director Jennifer Kent makes an impressive debut with this assured psychological horror about a widow struggling with her difficult son.

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Amelia (Essie Davis) works as a nurse at a nursing home, but her exhaustion is beginning to show. Her husband died in a car crash leaving her to raise their son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) alone. And he is truly a problem child. He has no social filters, informing total strangers that his father died while driving Amelia to the hospital to have him, sets traps all around the house to catch imaginary monsters, which he’s still scared of despite being nearly 7, and brings lethal crossbows to school without a second thought, resulting in major disciplinary action. When she reads him children’s book The Babadook she is aghast at its sinister content. Giving Robbie sedatives for his new nightmares and terror-related seizures she also takes medication, and so begins a slow dance of mental disintegration – can The Babadook be real?

Australia has never looked so awful, and that’s a huge compliment. Kent and cinematographer Radek Ladczuk cast a washed out blue-gray look over proceedings that combine with the creakiest house in existence to make South Australia look like darkest Gothic Yorkshire. Davis starred in the TV adaptation of The Slap, another Australian exploration of children who are every prospective parent’s worst nightmare. Indeed Amelia’s sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) bluntly explains why she never visits: “I can’t stand to be around your son, and you know what, neither can you.” Wiseman’s habit of grimacing in a way that looks like grinning, and panting in distress, is sensationally disturbing; after gravely injuring a girl everyone sees it as a malevolent grin. Davis is on top form. Her longing for husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), her frustration, exhaustion, despair, rage – all are viscerally conveyed.

The Babadook is a wonderful exercise in ambiguity and dread, a psychological horror of the highest calibre with a meaty dramatic through-line. Kent stages a number of jump-scares, inserts the obligatory demonisation of sexual desire as catalyst for Dionysian horror, and blurs the line gloriously between whose perception we’re experiencing when Amelia goes Mommie Dearest. Amelia starts to medicate herself and Samuel for their nervous exhaustion, and this allows magnificent ambiguity; are they hallucinating or is The Babadook real? When she tries to report that someone is stalking her to a police officer, and acts erratic in front of concerned neighbour Mrs Roach (Barbara West), you have the feeling this will be damning evidence that she’d gone off her rocker, after she guts Samuel; the explicit wish of The Babadook. And you further fear that this horror might go there…

The Babadook runs out of places to go once it admits the supernatural at a very late stage, but its combination of taboo drama and spine-tingling dread and ambiguity mark it as sophisticated horror.

4/5

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