Archive for the ‘horror’ Category

Us

Posted: March 31, 2019 in Film reviews, horror, science fiction
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Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker.

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In 1986 Adelaide Thomas holidays in Santa Cruz with her parents. One evening she wanders away from the boardwalk and enters a hall of mirrors where she encounters her doppelgänger. The experience is so traumatising that for a time she becomes mute and has to undergo therapy.

In the present-day Adelaide (Nyong’o) returns to Santa Cruz with her husband Gabe (Duke) daughter Zora (Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Alex). Adelaide is nervous, still haunted by events that happened as a child, but she tries to put these aside and enjoy the trip. Once there they meet up with their friends Kitty and Josh (Moss and Heidecker) and their twin daughters.

When Jason gets lost on the beach Adelaide panics. That night she explains to Gabe about her childhood trauma. He’s convinced that all she saw was her own reflection, but then the children tell them there’s a family standing in the driveway. It soon becomes clear that the family in the driveway are their doppelgängers, and they’re very, very angry…

 

In 2017 Peele’s Get Out took everyone by surprise, a smart satire that was made for peanuts yet made millions. It was Peele’s directorial debut and it immediately cemented his reputation as both a writer and director. It was clear he’d have no trouble securing the green light for any kind of follow up he wanted, and people were eager to see what he’d do next, certainly I was. I had a few issues with Get Out, it was smidgen too funny in places underscoring the dread, but on the whole it was great; original and with something to say about race.

us-movie-1553126874.jpgSad to say therefore that I came out of Us a little disappointed. If Get Out was a taut, clever film that mostly balanced scares and laughs, Us is a sprawling mess that often veers too far towards comedy and was rarely as creepy as it could have been, worst than this though, where Get Out had a great central idea and ran with it, Us feels too much like Peele has thrown as many ideas as he can against a wall, and whilst some of them stick, too many slide down to the floor.

One can’t fault the cast however, and each of them is excellent in dual roles, especially Nyong’o and Wright Joseph, with Nyong’o doing most of the heavy lifting as the leader of the ‘Tethered’. She’s superb, and they really do feel like different people, a loving mother and a malevolent attacker.

Some of the funniest moments in Get Out came courtesy of Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent Rod, and in Us, Winston Duke takes on a similar role. He’s very funny, of course its debatable whether he should be quite as funny as he is, and that’s part of the problem with the film, because at times its so funny that it does kind of undercut the tension. Take the moment the family start comparing kill scores for example. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need that in horror, it’s just here it’s all very broad, and much like Rod in Get Out, at times it feels like Gabe is in a different film.

As a side note if they ever decide to gender swap the Joker, Elisabeth Moss has to be considered!

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Peele has a good eye, and there’s some good imagery at work here, lots of reflections and use of shadows to reinforce the notion of duality, he directs humour very well and he does direct some creepy moments; that said it says something when probably the creepiest moment in the film is in the first ten minutes when young Adelaide visits the hall of mirrors. Peele can also clearly write well, his dialogue and characterisations feel real. The problem is the plot, and whilst it’s a curious thing to say, this is a film that gives us too much information, but at the same time too little. Peele’s said he has a whole mythology created for the world of the Tethered, and this clearly shows, but in trying to show off some of this mythology, whilst maintaining an air of mystery, the film falls between two stools.

There’s some disturbing imagery on view in the world of the Tethered, but by showing it Peele prompts more questions that he then provides answers for (where do the jumpsuits and scissors come from, how can people survive just on rabbit, how do the Tethered know exactly where to find their above ground doubles?) and the longer the film goes on the more preposterous it becomes and the more you have to suspend your disbelief. Suspending disbelief is something I do quite well, I’m a sci-fi/horror fan so it comes with the territory, but Peele demands too much and the final act really did have me saying “seriously?” That said one of the central twists is nicely done and does work.

jordan-peele-us-movie-first-trailer-01-320x180It is intriguing, and Peele does clearly have something to say about the American underclass rising up—and it’s surely no surprise that they wear red, there’s a clear allusion to Trump supporters here, and Us also means US, but whilst this might have worked well as a 45 minute Twilight Zone style episode (and I’m still looking forward to Peele’s TZ reboot) that gets in and out before you have time to consider the ramifications, at almost two hours this film gives you far too much time to think and notice plot holes.

I didn’t hate it, and I will watch it again, knowing what kind of film it is going in might mean it goes up in my estimation, but on first viewing it’s ok but nothing special. There could have been a creepier, tauter film here. Less is more, but in the case of Us I’m afraid More is less.

 

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Meddling Kids

Posted: January 20, 2019 in Book reviews, horror
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By Edgar Cantero

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In the summer of 1977 in Blyton Hills, a small mining town in Oregon, a groups of child detectives known as the The Blyton Summer Detective Club, solved their final mystery when they unmasked a treasure hunter who was masquerading as the Sleepy Lake Monster in order to scare people away so he could search the abandoned Deboën Mansion for it’s supposed riches.

13 years later and the happy go lucky band of young detectives have long since gone their separate ways and all have problems. Kerri, the smart one, has issues with alcohol and struggles to complete her studies, nerd Nate is in and out of mental institutions, Andy, is a nomadic tomboy with anger management issues who’s wanted in several states, and Peter, the golden boy who made it big in Hollywood, has committed suicide.

Slowly but surely the gang come to realise that there was much more to their final case than they thought at the time, and that the horror of what truly happened that summer has haunted them ever since. Andy convinces the survivors to team up once more to uncover the real story, and so the trio, accompanied by the Weimaraner, Tim, descendant of their original dog, set off for Blyton Hills, but what they’ll find there goes way beyond a man in a mask, and these meddling kids might have bitten off more than they can chew.

For someone who grew up with Scooby Doo, the Famous Five, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, there’s an obvious draw to a story that riffs on the child detectives of my youth, and mixing that with a tale of Lovecraftian horror should have been the icing on the cake.

Shame to report therefore that, despite an engaging premise, this was a book I struggled to love. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it in places, I just wish it had been more than the sum of its parts.

The central premise of a bunch of plucky kids struggling to find a place in the real world is intriguing, as is the post-modern slant. The trouble is this has been done to some extent, by Scooby Doo itself which in recent years reinvented itself by having real life monsters. It doesn’t help that the characters never seem more than ciphers, often the most interesting one was Tim.

The real problem however is Cantero’s prose, which is all over the place, he can’t even keep his style in place, for the most part it has a 3rd person narrative, but every so often, for no readily apparent reason except that perhaps he was bored, Cantero slips into a screenplay format, complete with camera directions and screenplay style dialogue. It’s incredibly jarring, as is Cantero’s purple prose and overabundance of allusions: Kerri’s hair is practically a character in its own right given the amount of description it gets. I’m sure some would say Cantero has a unique voice, but for me it was annoying and too often lifted me out of the story.

The story is well handled, though it does meander somewhat, and the monsters suitably monstrous in a Silent Hill kinda way.

It’s a decent enough read, but style over substance only really works if you like the style, and I merely tolerated it.

Maybe he’d have got away with it, if it wasn’t for this meddling reviewer?

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The Treat

Posted: October 31, 2018 in Free fiction, horror
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As it’s Halloween, when spooks and ghouls go out to play, I thought it only fair to gift you a tiny tale of terror…enjoy, and when you open the door to Trick or Treaters tonight, well maybe you’ll wonder…

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I like Halloween, it’s the one night of the year I feel safe going out.

If I walk up to someone’s front door on Halloween night they don’t cringe or scream when they open the door, don’t shut it in my face and turn out all the lights. No, on Halloween they smile at me, they talk to me, complimenting me on my costume, asking how I create such a vivid effect. I talk about using my mum’s makeup, and charcoal, lots of charcoal. Does this convince them? I don’t know, there’s a flicker in their eyes sometimes, as if they understand but can’t consciously bring themselves to accept that understanding, so they joke and give me candy.

I can’t taste the candy of course, but the wrappers are pretty.

Usually the other children play with me. It seems a different group each year, though it’s hard to tell when they’re all dressed up as witches and vampires. They’re happy for me to tag along with their little gang, though I have to be careful, if they ask who I am I stick to a first name only, never my own, and if they ask where I go to school I tell them I’m at boarding school far away.

I can’t very well tell them my school is St Michael’s, because St Michael’s burned down in 1976, the only casualty a nine year old girl who’d been playing with matches.

I stay with the other kids until they start to drift away, until they all head home. I used to stick it out to the last, until there’d be me and one other child left, but I don’t do that now. Somehow once a kid is alone with me they recognize me for who I really am, as if there’s some group hypnosis at work that keeps us all safe and happy, but only so long as we’re together. It isn’t much fun seeing one of your new friends running away from you screaming, and it isn’t fair on them; Halloween isn’t a time for real scares, it’s a time for pretend terrors.

On Halloween night I skip and play and laugh. On Halloween night I have friends, I have fun, and I almost forget…

But then midnight comes and I trudge away from bright lights and people. Midnight comes and I go back to the graveyard.

Until next year…

 

Halloween

Posted: October 27, 2018 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by David Gordon Green. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer and Andi Matichak.

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Door to door salesmen get more intrusive by the year!

It’s forty years since Michael Myers returned to Haddonfield and murdered five people, forty years since Laurie Strode (Curtis) survived her own fateful encounter with The Shape.

Michael now lives in a mental institute. He can speak but chooses not to. Meanwhile Laurie struggles with PTSD, and has become obsessed with Michael someday returning. She’s turned her home into a fortress and trained herself to fight, although this obsession has come with a cost and her relationship with her daughter Karen (Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Matichak) is strained.

When true crime bloggers Aaron and Dana ( Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) visit Michael they show him his mask. Whilst there seems to be some sign that he senses the mask, he still says nothing. Michael’s physiatrist Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer—or Mehmet from EastEnders as some may remember him!) explains that Michael is due to be transferred to a maximum-security facility the next day.

Of course with it being almost October 31st it isn’t long before Michael escapes. Soon he’s headed for Haddonfield to wreak carnage once more, only this time Laurie will be ready for him.

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Knife to see you, to see you knife!

The Halloween franchise has a confused timeline, with sequel upon sequel upon reboot, so in many respects the decision to jettison everything after the first film, making this effectively Halloween 2 mk.2, seems a sensible one, although there are nods to the other films, in particular the original Halloween 2 which revealed Laurie was Michael’s sister (just an urban legend here). The downside of this is that it neuters Michael somewhat. Suddenly he’s not a supernatural force of nature who’s slaughtered hundreds, now he’s just a psycho who killed five people and was caught not long after Dr Loomis (the late, great Donald Pleasance) shot him and watched him fall from a first floor window. The ending of Halloween is a masterstroke of terror, heavily implying that Michael is something not quite human, now it seems he was caught with ease five minutes later, and one of several problems the film has is that Michael’s lost that sense of otherworldly dread he once had, and as horror movies go Halloween 2018 commits the cardinal sin of just not being scary.

Which isn’t to say it’s a terrible film, and isn’t to imply that I didn’t enjoy it, but it would have been nice if it had played more like a horror film and less like a Terminator 2 knockoff. Unkillable antagonist, check, survivor of an original encounter who’s gone from naïve young woman to hardened killing machine, check, child of said survivor who thinks mom’s just nuts, check…you get my drift.

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As an action thriller Halloween works well enough, and its clearly made by people who have a great affection for the original, and there are many nods to the first film, including clever reversals of iconic images (remember Laurie looking out of the window and seeing Michael across the road, well now we get Allyson seeing Laurie standing sentinel over the road) that help lift the film above being just another slasher film, and of course it’s great to hear the Halloween music again and see Michael on the big screen.

It’s a gory film, yet the increased body count does mean that a lot of Michael’s kills seem somewhat repetitive. Sure you can overdue the inventiveness to the point where it becomes laughable, but after you see Michael ram someone’s head into a wall/steering wheel/whatever multiple times it becomes a trifle boring, and too many kills seem to happen off screen as well which is a little strange (although even in the original this happened).

The cast are good and the #metoo notion of daughter, mother and grandmother coming together to battle the faceless patriarchy seems incredibly prescient given the film’s production started way before Weinstein et al.

imagesCurtis is superb, and this really is her movie, and you have to give props to a film with the balls to make a woman of nearly 60 an action hero (I mean you shouldn’t because it shouldn’t be any more ridiculous than turning Liam Neeson into the most dangerous man alive, but that’s sadly the current nature of Hollywood, though thankfully times are changing). Curtis does an excellent job of making Laurie strong and defiant, yet incredibly brittle. She wants Michael to come back so she can kill him, but she’s also still traumatised by her earlier encounter. We believe she can shoot a bullseye from half a mile away, but we can also believe she wakes up screaming in the night. If anything I wish she’d been given even more to get her teeth into. Similarly with Greer who should have got more to do (though I do think she has the film’s best moment) As Alysson Matichak is very good, and thankfully Alysson feels like her own person rather than just being a cheap copy of 1978 Laurie.

Special mention to Virginia Gardner as Vicky and Jibrail Nantambu as Julian, the little boy she babysits, who have such a affectionately snarky relationship that for a while you kinda wish the film was about them. And it’s always nice to see the ever-reliable Will Patton, here playing Deputy Hawkins, the only local cop (improbably) who takes Michael’s return seriously.

The script feels a trifle confused, and whilst some of the direction is very good in evoking moments from the original, at times it’s very flat, which feeds into the lack of atmosphere which is the film’s biggest downside. It doesn’t even have many effective jump scares because they’re telegraphed so far in advance. Even the ‘twists’ aren’t that unexpected.

As an exercise in nostalgia, and an acting canvas for Jamie Lee Curtis this is excellent, as a female led action thriller it’s good, but as a horror film it fails miserably, which is a shame because if they’d actually managed to give this film a palpable sense of dread it could have been a true classic rather than an enjoyable but ultimately forgettable curiosity.

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After 40 years Michael finally feels comfortable coming out of the closet…

The Little Stranger

Posted: October 2, 2018 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter and Charlotte Rampling.

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It’s a few years after World War 2, and England is gripped with post war austerity. Dr Faraday (Gleeson) has returned to the village he grew up in to work as a GP in the local practice. Very soon he’s called out to Hundreds Hall, the home of the Ayres family. Faraday’s mother worked there as a maid, and he has vivid memories of the house in its glory days, specifically a visit to the house he undertook as a child in 1919. Things have changed though, the house is in disrepair and the family are in financial straits thanks in part to the new Labour government’s death duties.

Nominally the head of the household is Roderick Ayres (Poulter) an RAF veteran who was horribly disfigured in the war, but in reality keeping the family together is his sister Caroline (Wilson). Their mother (Rampling) still dotes on her dead daughter, Suki and both Roderick and the family’s maid Betty (Liv Hill) feel there is a supernatural presence in the house.

Faraday doesn’t believe in ghosts, but as one tragedy after another befalls the family, can there be any other explanation?

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The follow up to the impressive Room, Abrahamson’s latest film as it once very different, yet bears certain similarities. Room was a contemporary story about a young woman and her son held captive, and on the surface a tale of post war austerity, class and the supernatural seems very different, except much as Bria Larson and Jacob Tremblay were held captive to an outside force, so are both the Ayres and Faraday.

Faraday is a man trapped by his own pride, the son of a working class family he’s made a success of his life, yet can’t help but feel like the help, like he doesn’t belong, and Gleeson plays the part to a tee. Ramrod straight, his accent as clipped as his moustache, Faraday is trying desperately to fit in with the upper class that he envies so much, and it’s testament to Gleeson that he manages to make Faraday both empathetic and yet somewhat creepy at times, a delicate balancing act meant to keep the viewer off kilter. Faraday is obsessed with Hundreds Hall and its former glory, to the point of acting like a jealous lover at times, and his every act, good and bad, can be linked, directly or indirectly to his infatuation with the house.

Bette-Liv-Hill-and-Caroline-Ayres-Ruth-Wilson-in-the-Little-Stranger-a-Focus-Features-release-600x320.jpgCaroline is a prisoner too, to her family having been brought home to care for Roderick, and to society’s idea of a woman’s place in the world. Wilson gives a superb, incredibly subtle performance, better even than Gleeson. It’s never explicitly stated, but there’s a clear suggestion that Caroline may be a lesbian, and here again she is captive to the conventions of the late 1940s.

And then there’s Roderick, imprisoned by his injuries, both physical and psychological, and Mrs Ayres, longing for her dead daughter.

The Little Stranger is gloriously shot, but it’s an incredibly slow burn of a film that won’t appeal to everyone. Marketed as a horror film it’s likely to annoy the jump scare generation by relying on more subtle chills, although at times you can’t help feeling the film is a little too nuanced for its own good, and maybe even a little snooty over its more supernatural elements, preferring to work as a class driven melodrama for much of its run time, to the point where, a few early comments aside, any indication of an actual haunting comes late on in the film.

Of course, the slow pace means that scares can creep up on you, there’s an unsettling air hanging over the house and the characters, and though it only gave me a shudder on a couple of occasions, they were quite creepy moments. As a film this owes more to The Haunting than Nightmare on Elm Street, although there are a couple of surprisingly bloody scenes.

The film’s done poorly at the box office, and whilst on one level I can see why (in many respects, like Faraday the film’s too stiff for its own good) in some respects it’s shame because there’s a haunting quality to the film that rewards a careful watch, even if Abrahamson chickens out a little at the end by explicitly showing just who’s really haunting the house, which was unnecessary because you can work it out from the clues you’re given.

A well-acted, well directed film that suffers from a glacial pace and more than a hint of embarrassment at its supernatural credentials, I hope this might turn out to be a film that’s reappraised with time.

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trainsJust a quick note to tell you I have a new book out! It’s available to buy from Amazon as a download now. Here are the UK and US links

UK: Buy for just £1.99

US: Buy for just $2.58

It’s an anthology of tales, each of which relates to time in some fashion. From countdowns and deadlines, to travelling through time itself, there’s something for everyone. Here’s more detail on each of the ten stories inside…

Do the Trains Run on Time?

An England that could be today, could be tomorrow, or could even be yesterday, has been invaded by a faceless, implacable enemy, and for a lucky few the only escape is via refugee train, but time is running out for one group of evacuees waiting at a lonely railway station when they find themselves menaced by a monstrous creature.

Irreconcilable Distances

Long distance relationships can be challenging, but as humanity heads for the stars things will only get harder!

The Delicate Art of Deep Space Negotiation

When a labour dispute on a far flung mining colony threatens to bankrupt a galaxy spanning corporation, one senior executive embarks on a desperate mission to resolve the issues, but time is of the essence.

Tempus Stultitia

When a student takes radical action to get a good grade, he imagines he’s thought of everything, but he may have made a very big mistake.

Folding Back the Years.

The place is London, the year is 1970, and Soviet backed forces are on the verge of taking the city. As the evacuation begins only one man knows that this isn’t how things were supposed to be…

Temp Agency

It’s the ultimate part time job, but is there a catch?

Mr Dweeb Comes to Town

The young man who wanders into a bar on a distant planet looks like an easy target for local thugs, but why does he keep checking his watch?

The Astronaut’s Son

Growing up is hard enough without your dad being an astronaut who’s aging slower than you are.

Habeas Corpus 

All new technologies get misused, and time travel is no different as some disreputable academics plan a very unique heist.

Ulrik Must Die!

It is another place, another time. Lady Maryam is far from home and heavily pregnant, with only her wits to rely on she must fight to ensure not only her own future, but the future of her unborn child. One thing is clear, for them to survive, Ulrik must die!

Hereditary

Posted: June 17, 2018 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Ari Aster. Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro and Gabriel Byrne.

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Just one big happy family.

At the funeral of her mother Ellen, Annie Graham (Collette) gives a eulogy detailing the difficult relationship she had with her mother due to Ellen’s secretive ways. She also mentions the loss of her father when she was a baby, and the fact that her brother committed suicide.

In the aftermath of the funeral, and unbeknownst to her husband Peter (Byrne), Annie visits a grief support group. She’s an artist specialising in miniature dioramas and an upcoming show has put her under added pressure, this stress isn’t helped by her uncommunicative daughter Charlie (Shapiro) and her slacker son Peter (Wolff).

As time passes and bizarre events begin to occur to the family, Annie becomes more and more convinced that the family is in some way cursed, and that a supernatural presence is stalking them, but are her fears genuine or is it a symptom of the mental illness that runs through the family?

 

Hereditary arrives on a wave of “Horror movie of the year/decade/century” level hype and expectation, and that’s always difficult to manage, but if you can get past the hysteria what lies behind it is an exceptionally well-crafted horror movie, albeit one that at times might be too well-crafted for its own good, but I’ll come onto that.

The first thing to say is that if your notion of a horror film is something like Insidious, a funfair ghost train of a film with a jump scare every five minutes, then Hereditary might disappoint. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have frights, but this is a slow burn of a film that prioritises atmosphere over action for most of its running time, and what an atmosphere! In tune with films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, or more recently films like The Blair Witch Project and Get Out, Hereditary is a film that aims to unsettle. There’s a palpable sense of dread that hangs over the film like a mouldy sheet. Even before much in the way of the supernatural occurs this world feels off kilter, from the odd way Charlie acts, to Annie’s work creating miniaturist art (and kudos to the design team because these miniature sets are wonderful) that is at once intriguing but also disquieting.

Once bad things start happening it’s a downward spiral for the family, but you have to give Aster credit, because he doesn’t let the story follow the path you imagine, in fact there’s one moment early on that left me awestruck at its audacity. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a certain level of predictability at work here, but there has to be, the best twists are ones that arise out of logical actions, and the film is littered with little clues which will likely make a repeat viewing even more interesting.

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The cast are excellent. Few actors can do frazzled and on the edge of nervous breakdown as well as Collette, and this is her film. Annie is a character seemingly out of step with the world even before the supernatural intrudes on her life. You get the feeling she’s hovered on the edge of a breakdown for a while, yet Collette never quite lets the character tip over the edge. Byrne has less to get his teeth into, because he’s tasked with being the grounded member of the family, but he does it well and between them they convince as a couple who clearly love one another, yet are somehow distant strangers.

1238244As Peter, Wolff does a great job essaying a young man who goes from someone whose only concerns are weed and girls, to someone who has to deal with incredible tragedy and then the fact that his family may be being haunted by an evil force, and much as with Collette you really fear for him. Then there’s newcomer Shapiro as Charlie and what a performance. Charlie is, to put it mildly, an odd bird, but despite her inexperience Shapiro never overdoes things. She’s an unsettling presence in every scene, the sort of loner you imagine would be bullied, yet somehow isn’t because everyone is, if not afraid of her, then unnerved by her.

Rounding out the small cast is Ann Dowd (yes Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale!) as another member of the grief support group.

Aster directs his own script, and whilst he has written and directed short films before, this is his feature debut and he does an excellent job, knowing when to close in on the family to emphasise the claustrophobia, but also willing to pull back to emphasise the isolation of the characters. He makes full use of the camera, from skewed angles to making wonderful use of shadow and reflection to highlight some very eerie moments, and he makes great use of the landscape, both the geographic and the more personal landscapes, focusing on every anguished line on Collette’s face as if her visage were itself were the surface of the moon. As with the best horror sometimes the worst parts of the film are the bits you don’t see, and Aster judiciously cuts away from several gorier elements that a lesser director would have focused on. Not that Hereditary isn’t gory, Aster just knows when to show and when to tell.

The one downside is that, with the tension wound so tight, and with the film walking such a razor’s edge between ludicrous and terrifying, occasionally the more melodramatic moments can teeter on the side of funny rather than frightening. For me it never quite fell into that trap, but I can see with the wrong kind of audience there may be more laughs than screams.

Assuredly directed, wonderful acted, this is an unsettling, yet utterly mesmerising film that will likely only get better with repeat viewings.

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