After fabulously leaving the Star Wars fandom in flames with The Last Jedi (a blockbuster so complex and thematically rich, it actually inspired me to start writing about movies!), modern genre film icon Rian Johnson is back for another standalone film— and possibly even his last one for quite a while, as he begins develops his own Star Wars trilogy. In his newest outing, Johnson trades a sci-fi fantasy epic for a classic Hollywood mystery with a killer ensemble cast, a luxurious Kentucky mansion, and cozy, expensive-looking sweaters. The brilliance of Knives Out, however, is that Johnson is somehow able to deliver a hilarious, crowd-pleasing whodunnit film, while simultaneously keeping his radical trademark subversive storytelling intact. I suspect it will be quite challenging for any soul to walk out of this film unamused because on both a casual and intellectual level, Knives Out is an absolute knockout.
Horror scores are lauded for their creation of atmosphere and dread, from John Carpenter’s electronic music in Halloween to the iconic fear created through two notes by John Williams in Jaws. However, music is not the only sonic way to build horror; sound design is everything in cultivating a terrifying film. An early example is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which didn’t even have score. Its soundscape was almost entirely digitally-manufactured bird sounds that create its persistent feeling of unnaturalness and unease. Then there are the multitudes of monster sounds created throughout horror history that may haunt you in your dreams, from the rawr of Jurassic Park’s T. rex to the vampire screeches in 30 Days of Night. Not to mention the screams, stabbings, creaking floorboards, whispers, and more that are utilized throughout the genre to build suspense and make your hair stand up. In horror, sound design, sound effects, and score all work together to create a soundscape of dread.
A recent example, and I believe a rather important one, of the power of sound is Ari Aster’s 2018 film, Hereditary. Its use of sound effects and a haunting, droning score by Colin Stetson, paired with camerawork that prioritizes auditory experience rather than a visual one, contributes to the film’s unbelievable tension and dread. While much of the film’s praise is given to its amazing performances, its use of sound truly makes it one of the year’s most terrifying films.
First and foremost, there is the tongue clicking that permeates the film, a sounds that been ruined for anyone who has seen Hereditary. Even the film’s trailer alluded to the power of just one little cluck of the tongue. The tongue clicking is that of Charlie Graham, who does it as some kind of tic. She clicks her tongue as she draws, makes strange toys, whenever, wherever; it is how her family can identify her without even seeing her. Despite it seeming to be an innocuous click, every time she does it, it feels like a jump scare; these clicks shatter the silence like a hammer to glass and put you on edge just in the film’s beginning. So when Charlie dies, it seems that these moments of uneasiness will be over. Not so fast.
Grief, guilt, and mental illness are not unusual themes in horror film. We’ve seen them in The Babadook, The Witch, It Follows, the list goes on. But Ari Aster’s debut feature film, Hereditary, takes the struggles of grief to another horrifying level. What he creates is a tense, devastating, and at times difficult to watch, look at the trauma we suffer at the hands of our family and how that trauma lives on past death.
Hereditary opens on the grieving Graham family. Annie, played by the phenomenal Toni Collette, has lost her mother and is trying to work her way through this loss with support groups and working on her artistic miniatures. Meanwhile, her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) tries to maintain some semblance of normalcy with their son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and young daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). But slowly everything begins to fall apart into a very dark place. Telling you any more about the plot would ruin the film and this is best viewed without any idea of what to expect.