Toni Overdoes It.

(dir. Ari Aster) (2018)

Aster’s first feature performs well on The Babadook Horror Movie Scale.  There’s a large, unnaturally dark house, the topography of which is unclear, with curtains, a basement and lamp-lit corners; an insect invasion or two; a cute shaggy pet dog (not long for this world), and a creepy kid. Hereditary reminds us though, to add to the list – a medium, a séance, lights which might be ectoplasm, reflections of faces, a room which must not be entered until The Big Reveal, books which no-one opens until The Big Reveal, and old photographs which are just lying about, un-examined, until The Big Reveal.

Yes, it’s that By the Numbers.  The family living in the woods in the immense gloomy wooden house are challenged by something which is hinted at and hinted at. The mother Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has a family history of madness which she blurts out to strangers in expository fashion; her recently deceased Mumsie (who lived with them) was pretty nasty, apparently. The father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is stoically holding it all together. The teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) is acting a bit weird, and the thirteen year old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – well. Something’s up and we’re given pretty shouty hints – Toni Collette’s necklace, used to much poorer effect than the necklace belonging to her character in The Sixth Sense, a name, a post on the roadside, a nut allergy. Knowing the horror genre as we all do (sigh) it won’t be long before the viewer has worked out which of these tropes it’s gonna be: –

  1. Vampires (ridiculous, unless the film is Dracula or Interview with the Vampire,which this isn’t);
  2. Madness (more of an element in every horror film.  Splendidly used in a masterpiece such as The Shining, which this isn’t, and a snore in a film as poor as The Babadook, which this isn’t quite);
  3. Ghosts (effective in a great film like The Sixth Sense or The Others, which….you guessed it..);
  4. Total confusion (as in Personal Shopper which this is quite like);
  5. Something original (as in Get Out which leaves this for dead), or
  6. Witchcraft (ho hum, unless the film is Rosemary’s Baby, which this isn’t).

Into the “total confusion” category we can dump the utter freaking weirdness of the daughter Charlie, the obvious ethnic difference of the son, Annie’s level of knowledge of it all and a hugely odd plot point concerning something left in a car,

Toni Collette plays three scenes to devastating effect, but her otherwise astoundingly over-the-top twitching and grimacing is just bizarre.  Gabriel Byrne does not have much to do, other than stare sadly, which he does to great effect. Alex Wolff as the son has much the same role, but I cannot say how well he played it, given that I was so distracted by the big black mole above his lip (from which I expected spiders to spring).

Annie’s career as a miniaturist seems to be set to tell us something which it never does, although it gives some scenes a nice play-like quality.  There are heavy-handed references to Greek plays and we all know that it is best to beware of the kindly middle-aged woman who jumps up out of nowhere, don’t we?

The final scenes are rather good, in an awful way, and quite hard to watch, but it’s not enough and it takes too long to get there. And it’s no surprise that the peculiar outfit which Toni Collette is wearing turns out to be stunt-woman friendly.

M. Night Shyamalan started with his best, the classic The Sixth Sense and then went downhill with laughable shockers The Village and Signs.  It is to be hoped that Ari Aster is working the other way.

Charlie is Freaking Weird.


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