How 'Hereditary' Flips Steven Spielberg's Trademark Shot
It may not be apparent, but Ari Aster’s acclaimed but decidedly downbeat horror film Hereditary has some surprising similarities to Jurassic Park, one of Steven Spielberg's most awe-inspiring and invigorating films.
Aster’s movie is a dense, European-influenced work full of symbolism and a sustained feeling of dread that slowly suffocates any hope that things might work out OK. It's a contained tale, largely taking place in the home of a family as it deals with loss and the burdens of legacy. The filmmaker achieves his goals partially by borrowing a classic Spielberg technique that's been dubbed "Spielberg face," with the first-time features helmer tweaking it for maximum scares.
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The term Spielberg face, which describes the expressive close-up favored by the filmmaker, originated with video essayist Kevin B. Lee in 2011. It refers to the director’s penchant for focusing on his characters’ reactions rather than the wondrous, terrifying or otherwise potent subject they’re looking at. It’s Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) agape at making contact with alien life in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) approaching a cliff in The Last Crusade and, of course, it’s Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) seeing his long-dead obsessions walk the Earth in Jurassic Park.
In Hereditary, Aster uses Spielberg face to create tension where Spielberg offers release. The latter director's characters are almost always static, with the camera rolling toward them. Aster flips the traditional orientation of horror movie movement; instead of showing someone walking away from the camera toward an unknown evil that’s behind a door or around a corner, Aster focuses on the faces of stars Toni Collette, Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro, showing them walking toward the camera and unseen terrors. They react to the horror like Spielberg’s characters respond to wonder, their eyes growing wide, mouths barely holding back a scream, focus never deviating from the object of their gaze. All of this happens before the film actually cuts to the unnerving reveal.
Usually in a horror film, when a character is moving away from the camera, the film will cut back and forth between the character's perspective and the direction they are walking toward to emphasize the uncertainty. What's behind that closed door? What's in the shadows? Aster's method amplifies that uncertainty; the questions are the same, but the audience knows even less about what awaits a character. Is it hidden? Is it in plain sight? Is it moving? Is it coming this way? Just as Spielberg amplifies his magnificent images and groundbreaking special effects with the simplicity of a well-acted reaction, Aster locks audiences into their fear by ensnaring them with the inescapable gazes of his Medusa-like horror victims.
The closest thing in Spielberg’s filmography to Hereditary's use of his technique is the face of 4-year-old actor Cary Guffey in Close Encounters as his home is surrounded by aliens. Guffey’s saucer eyes and the camera’s unrelenting focus need only a musical key change and the reveal of a terrified scream rather than a joyful smile to turn the magical moment into Heredity's hallway-imprisoned household horror show.
Spielberg returns to this well later in Close Encounters when Guffey and his mother (Melinda Dillon) are surrounded in their home by aliens. This part is Spielberg's horror: It's Dillon and Guffey staring down at some unknowable terror before the filmmaker finally does his audience the kindness of cutting to the release — the air vent's screw unscrewing and falling out. It's the same reveal as the BOOM, BOOM, BOOM stomps in Jurassic Park leading up to the rippling glass of water. In Hereditary, we get Wolff serving as War of the Worlds' Dakota Fanning, whom Spielberg essayist Lee notes looks on with horror, not wonder, as aliens invade the Earth. Wolff's Peter in Hereditary is innocence lost — his stare empty and dead not because he started cynical, but because he has seen (and survived) so much. This uses the face as an expression of the soul, one that reveals trauma.
"It is a weird, blotchy blackout thing," Wolff recently told The Hollywood Reporter of filming a haunting scene in a car. "Ari was so amazing, and he just put the camera on me and he didn’t say much."
It's in this aspect of Hereditary — the one that forgoes motion in favor of static observation — that evokes the work of a different filmmaker. Aster makes great use of the Kubrickian dead-eyed stare that characters in 2001: A Space Odyssey turn upon the camera, just like the protagonists of The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange. These people have internalized some awful stuff, be it the violent dehumanization of the military or the madness of isolation.
By allowing its actors to really dig into their reactions, rather than using quick cuts and jump scares, Hereditary enables the very warped and freaky scenario in the film to feel grounded (and even more scary). Wolff's Peter might be sitting in class, staring into space as the weight of the movie’s events crush him and the audience can’t help but feel sympathy and fear. By focusing on actors rather than gimmicks, building emotions rather than expecting them, Aster proves he's a filmmaker with more in common with the greats that preceded him, even beyond the Spielberg face.
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