Reel Dad: Hereditary showcases Toni Collette but misses mark

Arts and Leisure welcomes back Jonathan Schumann this week. The son of Reel Dad Mark Schumann, Jonathan started writing about film for Arts and Leisure in 1999 as part of the original “Take Two” duo with his dad. Jonathan now works in market research in New York City. And he still loves movies.

I’ll admit it — I’m not much of a horror movie fan.

Ever since the Saw franchise came to prominence in the 2000s, the genre now too often offers body parts and splatter as a substitute for real, sustained scares. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll take the disappearing corpse in Clouzot’s Diabolique over decapitations any day.

Writer/director Ari Aster’s Hereditary hedges more to a high level of tension throughout, and is certainly creepy. The problem, though, is that Aster seems unsure what story he wants to tell. It’s a meditation on grief, a paranoia thriller, a study on the occult. Films don’t have to be about one thing, but the pieces need to connect. A fatal twist in the third act undoes the great groundwork Aster has laid up to that point, and forces the audience to question the legitimacy of the stomach-churning scares they’ve experienced so far. That produces a thriller that’s intermittently scary and entertaining, but ultimately frustrating.

It’s a simple set-up. Annie (Toni Collette), is grieving the death of her mother, with whom she had a complicated, distrustful relationship. The family unit seems intact but tense, at the start everyone — Annie’s husband (Gabriel Byrne), son (Alex Wolff) and daughter (Millie Shapiro) — seems polite but a bit detached. Annie’s an artist whose work focuses on miniature scenes of domestic life — living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms. It’s a not-so-subtle clue that the strange things that start happening, and the uncontrollable fear and emotion that begin to seize Annie, are all wrapped up in the family. I hesitate to elaborate on plot any further, so as not to spoil the multiple twists that unfurl, but suffice to say that a spectral force — real or imagined — begins to take hold of Annie and her family. It all leads to a climax that’s meant to be a terrifying crescendo, but feels more like a narrative belly flop.

All of that said, the film serves as a showcase for Collette’s prodigious talents. In lesser hands, this role could have been all grimace and histrionics, but Collette makes Annie’s grief, pain, suspicion and confusion palpable and believable. It’s more than a bit ironic that the film that introduced mainstream audiences to Collette, The Sixth Sense, does a superior job at the exact twists and turn Hereditary tries to achieve. The supporting case also does great work, particularly Alex Wolff and the ever indispensable Ann Dowd.

Interested in other movie thrillers? Check out these classics — in the spirit of Hereditary — that are available for online streaming:

Streaming Pick: Take Shelter

This may seem like an odd companion piece, but writer/director Jeff Nichols effectively uses the genre conventions of a paranoia thriller to artfully explore mental illness. Michael Shannon is at his most towering in the lead role, and Jessica Chastain does great work as his wife.

Streaming Pick: Rosemary’s Baby

A more obvious analogue to Hereditary’s central themes, this film has rightly earned its classic status. A young bride (Mia Farrow) becomes increasingly convinced that her posh Manhattan co-op is filled with witches. The Ira Levin novel upon which the film is based is also a must-read.

Hereditary, running 2 hours and 7 minutes, is rated R for “horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity.” It is showing in area theaters. 2 1/2 Popcorn Buckets. 

Get Out delivers real thrills

As we learn with Hereditary, real thrills on screen are easier to write about than to create. And, now and then, we find a film that gets the chills just right.

Last year’s Oscar-winning thriller Get Out begins with a haunting, perfectly executed cold open. A young black man walks down the street of a suburban neighborhood. He’s talking on his phone, everything seems fine. The streets are well-lit; the homes and hedges look inviting.

But this is a thriller where there’s always something sinister lurking behind the seemingly placid surface. Soon a menacing white sports car starts stalking him. I won’t spoil his fate, but you can read between the lines. It’s not only a chilling sequence, it’s also one with familiar ripples.

Writer/director Jordan Peele, better known as half of the erstwhile comedy duo Key and Peele, has constructed a social thriller that delivers twists and satisfying scares, but has bigger ideas on its mind. Peele embraces the spirit of the great paranoia thrillers of the 1970s — Get Out feels particularly in dialogue with The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby — to comment on race in America. The sinister conspiracy at the core of Get Out is scary, but what it acts as a metaphor for is far more frightening.

The setup is simple. Rose (Allison Williams, perfectly cast and confidently stretching beyond her Girls persona) brings home her boyfriend Chris (Sicario’s Daniel Kaluuya) to meet her parents. Rose is white and Chris is black, so the whole thing is very Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Rose assures Chris that her parents are open-minded liberals, and at the outset, everything seems normal. Missy (Being John Malkovich’s Catherine Keener, always a welcome presence) comes off as a warm earth mother and Dean (The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford, a pro at playing smarmy) seems harmless if effusive about his stance on equality (“I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could,” he boasts to Chris). But this is a film about surfaces and what lurks beneath them and, pretty soon, we realize something is off.

It’s that moment — when the audience secures its ultimate clue — that makes any psychological thriller feel complete. Because we may figure out what will happen before the characters on screen, we can only hope they get smart soon enough to avoid an inevitable conclusion. But that might not be as much fun at the movies. And we go to thrillers because they are fun.

To share any more of Get Out’s plot would rob you of the great pleasure of watching it unfold. Suffice to say, all is not what it seems, and the film’s title is apt. And, as we have seen in the past year, its impact reaches beyond the thrills on screen.

Get Out is Rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references. The film runs 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Interested in other movie thrillers? Check out these classics — in the spirit of Get Out — that are available for online streaming:

It Follows

The suburban hysteria found in the opening moments of Get Out recall the extended, one-shot sequence at the start David Robert Mitchell’s intelligent riff on the horror genre. Similar to Peele’s work here, Mitchell toys with and subverts the conventional horror narrative, all the while spinning a compelling, terrifying yarn.

The Stepford Wives

Similar to Get Out, this film — my favorite of the paranoia thriller sub-genre — casts suburbia as a villain. Katherine Ross is Joanna, a skeptical New Yorker who moves with her family to the picturesque bedroom community of Stepford. Right off the bat, Joanna notices that the housewives of Stepford seem just a little too perfect. Suspense and scares ensues.