SOMETHING very strange is happening with my email. As a film critic, I’m used to seeing invitations to advance film screenings pop up in my inbox.
But I always feel slightly shocked when I see the name of a horror film. In recent years, these films have become so achingly formulaic even film publicists have become afraid of them.
But slowly – you could say spookily – sinister titles like The Witch, Get Out and Ghost Stories have been popping up in the subject line.
That chirpy pinging noise is beginning to sound rather menacing.
Hereditary provides spine-chilling confirmation the intelligent horror film is enjoying a renaissance.
It has been shown at festivals, screened widely to critics and is being proudly marketed as “this generation’s Exorcist”.
That tagline only tells half the story. Like many film-makers working in this new wave of scary movies, Ari Aster, the film’s 31-year-old director, has been influenced by films from the last century.
But to understand why it is so frightening, we need to go back further than William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist.
POSSESSED: Toni Collette plays troubled artist Annie Graham, who is haunted by her evil mother
Hereditary, which arrives in cinemas on Friday, puts the chills on a very slow boil. Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, an artist who constructs miniature models of buildings in her attic studio.
Her mother has just died in the upstairs bedroom leaving deep rifts in the family. In a heart-rending speech at a support group, Annie reveals how her mother subjected her to years of emotional abuse.
This could be why she is finding it so hard to grieve and why she is neglecting her two troubled children by hiding away in her studio.
Her miniature world, it seems, is the only realm she can control. The film also raises another awful possibility.
Mental illness runs in Annie’s family so when she claims she can communicate with the spirit world, her husband (Gabriel Byrne) suspects she has inherited something terrible.
Hereditary has been compared to Rosemary’s Baby
Aster made his crew watch Mike Leigh’s domestic dramas to prepare for the shoot but, really, he’s using a trick established by another of his cinematic idols
Aster made his crew watch Mike Leigh’s domestic dramas to prepare for the shoot but, really, he’s using a trick established by another of his cinematic idols.
When Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby was released in 1968, the horror film was still emerging from the dark shadow cast by Universal’s monster movies.
Polanksi decided to leave the Gothic mansions in the past and set his film in a well-lit, modern apartment.
He doesn’t spill a drop of blood and he doesn’t deliver a single jump scare; the moment when audiences are left open-mouthed is at a horrific image accompanied by a big noise.
What makes Rosemary’s Baby so terrifying is its familiarity. If this can happen to a nice girl like Mia Farrow’s Rosemary, we suspect that it could happen to us too.
Alfred Hitchcock was known as the master of psychological horror
What made the shower scene so shocking was how unlikely it seemed.
No other film-maker had bothered to make his audience empathise with a lead character, especially one played by a big star like Janet Leigh, only to kill her off halfway through the film.
But Hitchcock’s most perverse use of the close-up occurs a little later in the film. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the apparent son of the killer, is trying to dump Leigh’s car in a swamp.
As the car sinks slowly into the mud, Hitchcock keeps cutting to Norman’s expectant face. When it stops sinking, we feel Norman’s frustration. When the car finally disappears, we feel relief.
Hitchcock has just made us accessories to murder so when Norman is revealed to be the killer, we will feel uncomfortably complicit.
Psycho is a clear influence on M Night Shyamalan’s latest horror film. The director had a big impact in 1999 when he combined the tropes of the realist horror with a twist ending in The Sixth Sense.
He fell out of favour a few years later when audiences developed a taste for “torture porn” like the Saw series and directors began to rely on gore and jump shocks.
Shyamalan returned to the genre last year with Split, a clever psychological chiller bolstered by a brilliant performance from James McAvoy.
He plays a man with 23 distinct personalities who kidnaps three teenage girls. His main personality is a sadist but when he turns into an awkward nine-year-old boy, we find ourselves rooting for him.
John Carpenter didn’t want us to have any sympathy with masked psychopath Michael Myers who is presented as an embodiment of pure evil in his 1978 slasher Halloween.
Carpenter’s films work on a physical level. By playing with what he calls “universal fears”, he triggers our adrenal glands to flood our bodies with stress hormones.
Heather Langenkamp is confronted in her relaxing bath by the evil claws of Freddy Kreuger
In a recent interview he listed three primal fears – “loss of identity, disfigurement and loss of a loved one”. Interestingly, all those boxes are ticked off in Hereditary.
The late Wes Craven took a slightly more refined approach when he added a fantasy element to the slasher movie with 1984’s A Nightmare On Elm Street.
Craven held a master’s degree in psychology and we can see that background in the iconic scene where a girl is dragged to the depths of a bottomless bathtub by his disfigured killer Freddy Krueger.
Craven, like Hitchcock before him, knew the bathroom is associated with intimacy and vulnerability. Having his demonic killer invade the womb-like comfort of a warm bath seems to tap into another primal fear.
In the recent A Quiet Place, John Krasinski used the image of an upturned nail to trigger a fight or flight response. This tense and expertly constructed horror is set in a farmhouse where a family are surrounded by blind monsters who hunt by their sense of hearing.
As they have all removed their shoes to stay quiet, we wait to see bare skin punctured by the rusty nail. When the inevitable happens and a scream entices a monster into the family home, Emily Blunt’s character hides in the bathtub.
Again, it’s intimacy and vulnerability that make this so terrifying.
The new wave of horror is clearly being built on old foundations. Next month, a wave of blue-collar rage will be released in The First Purge, a political horror that owes a debt to both Donald Trump and zombie maestro George A Romero.
My inbox could emit a blood-curdling ping at any moment.
Hereditary is in cinemas on Friday. Read Andy’s review next Sunday