The Supernatural On Film Part 1
Last night I saw ‘Hereditary’ in a cinema with broken-down air-conditioning, such was my desperation to catch it. I’m addicted to good supernatural films, ie. not the bump-and-jump scare tactics of anything that says ‘From the producers of ‘The Conjuring’. But there’s a paradox at the heart of every supernatural film. To truly work it needs a psychological underpinning, which buffets against the thrill-ride many expect from the genre. Although it’s not true to say that such films never win Oscars (both ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Exorcist’ did) they rarely offer good actors a chance to behave with realism.
This isn’t true of ‘Hereditary’, which gains much of its momentum from Toni Collette’s powerful, honest performance as a mother with some serious family issues. The film’s first-time director borrows liberally from supernatural cinema, notably from ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, and like ‘Get Out’ before it, succeeds right up until the last ten minutes undermines it.
The problem, as ever, is that supernatural events require the one thing that let them down – explanations. Ideally, the perfect supernatural film would be one without closure or explanation, but it would be unsatisfying. What works on the page (ie. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’) can’t work on film. We don’t just want an ending, we want a fully fleshed-out resolution. But turning the lights on in a darkened room releases us from fear.
‘Hereditary’ works for the most part on an original idea; that a family can never escape its past. It’s shot like a European film – disturbing events often happen in silence or from a distance – and is filled (probably too much) with neat editorial tricks. But it’s frightening not because of what we see, but because of how we learn about terrible events. The information comes to us secondhand from people who are over-familiar with what happened, as it would in real life. So Toni Colette tells a story about something that occurred recently and makes it sound quite casual, whereas we viewers, coming new to something she has long since adjusted to, are appalled.
It’s an intriguing notion, that we eventually adjust to the most terrible circumstances, and one that has been proven throughout history. That’s all we need to believe in ghosts. Unfortunately the film then goes on to flesh out those psychological monsters with effects we’ve seen before – but for a while it feels like the most powerful supernatural tale in years.
Clearly, this isn’t the first film to explore the power of the supernatural by looking through the prism of human behaviour. But searching out such films takes us off the beaten track of hit movies, looking in nooks and crannies. I’ll be looking at some tomorrow.