Dir: Ari Aster
Curse of the Mummy
There’s much to admire in this full-blooded frightener from production-company-of-the-moment A24. But also, an equal amount that frustrates. We leave the cinema at the witching hour with the feeling that there is a great film in there, but buried deep within heavy-handed styling and tropes that feel derivative. On the plus side, it is admirably extreme for a multiplex horror boasting A-listers like Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne. But whatever happened to the grace granted by a touch of subtlety?
We join the dysfunctional Graham family at the funeral of their matriarch Ellen Leigh. It’s soon obvious there was little love lost between the deceased and her daughter Annie (Collette), who opens her heart in a stilted eulogy to the mourners, bemoaning her mother’s obstinate privacy and self-isolation in life. Annie, a successful artist working in miniature models, reveals the full painful story of their strained relationship when she joins a grief-counselling workshop. Although it’s excruciatingly awkward for her to attend, it does bring some solace, especially when she’s befriended by Joan (Ann Dowd), a kindly middle-aged widow trying to come to terms with her own recent loss.
As the layers of the plot peel back, we descend into territory fielded by Suspiria (1977), Drag Me to Hell (2009) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968)… fertile ground indeed for extracting genuine spookiness from modern-day circumstance. It’s handsomely shot, and forges a characteristic style, with inventive angles and panning shots, while sharp jump cuts imply the presence of something malign. It even manages to pull off a resolutely Hitchcockian shock, one that virtually no-one has dared go near since Hitch made it his own. Perhaps it’s the reason the marketeers dared to reference his masterpiece on the poster.
Incremental unease is successfully summoned with gradual pace and claustrophobic settings. But once we get to the obligatory séance scene, it’s apparent we’re dealing in a language of the exceptionally overt. And then some. Everything is hammered home, underestimating the audience’s intelligence, making sure that everyone is QUITE CLEAR what horror is afoot. Neatly laid out clues are so heavily signposted that any twist loses impact, and the fact that it concerns the paranormal is made head-spinningly obvious by choosing to visibly depict the evil ‘spirit’ on screen. Did the director not have enough faith in the acting alone?
Annie is endlessly tinkering with the intricate models that are her living, which also help her deal with the stress of all this hocus-pocus. Accordingly, the opening shot zooms into one such model to suggest we’re at a different scale. It promises a playing with levels of reality …rich potential for psychological sideswiping. And it’s backed up by strong hints that you can’t trust what you’re seeing throughout; Annie comes round from multiple post-traumatic nightmares. But all this heavy suggestion leads …nowhere. While effectively unnerving in themselves, these dead ends and non sequiturs ultimately feel like empty options left open for a choice of possible endings.
But the selected finale does turn out to be memorably intense, and, with a 15 certificate, it definitely has the power to disturb those fresh to the pastures of shock cinema. An enjoyably grisly occult horror it can certainly claim to be, but not the terror classic its PR campaign would have us believe. Hereditary curses itself by conjuring so much potential, but then failing to make good on the promise. Mainly through understatement being sacrificed on the altar of populism, and the roots of its cinematic family tree being so explicit.
★ ★ ★ ½