By now, you either love or hate A24 and the horror films they put out. Films such as It Comes at Night, Green Room, The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and others, though all varying levels of “quality”, have this in common: they’re unique. Each is unlike anything else out there in the horror genre right now...
...Because these films are so different, they’ve all released to mixed reviews amongst fans. Some call these films masterpieces which are breaking the mold of your average horror film and pushing tired clichés to new and interesting heights. Others will say these films are slow, boring, convoluted, and focus too much on artistry rather than entertainment. Whichever side you’re on, I’d expect Hereditary to be no different for you. The film is in itself, a breaker of trends, but this is one trend it fits squarely in the middle of.
From writer/director Ari Aster (his first feature), Hereditary centers on the strange circumstances that befall the Grahams shortly after the death of their family matriarch. Most of the family seems indifferent after the passing of mother to Annie (Toni Collette), especially Annie herself. Neither her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) nor her estranged son Peter (Alex Wolff) seem to care much either. Only their youngest child, an odd girl named Charlie (Milly Shapiro) appears to have any real concern over the death of her grandmother, going so far as to sob and ask Annie, to her own taken aback surprise, who will take care of her now. On the night of the funeral, Annie spots the ghost of her mother watching over her, but quickly shakes it off as her imagination. To continue with what happens from here would only spoil the terrifying wonder of Hereditary, so instead I’ll say that while this film explores concepts typical to your average ghost stories, including séances, objects moving on their own, etc., what Hereditary is truly about at its core is the destruction of a family devastated by grief and their own mistrust of one another. Each actor/actress plays their roles with an uncomfortable realism, specifically Toni Collette, who simultaneously manages to wear such anger/sadness on her sleeve that it would be a wonder to me if she didn’t receive an Oscar nod for her performance. Imagine the worst, most personal experience you’ve ever gone through with your family, the darkest emotions you’ve ever harbored towards them, extrapolate that into two hours of terror on screen, and you get Hereditary.
Ari Aster is a master of atmosphere. From the second the film opens until the credits begin to roll, I found myself with this uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, the kind you get when you know you’ve done something wrong and are about to be confronted with it. See, Hereditary is likely the most personal horror film you will see this year. You’re forced to watch as this family tears themselves apart and drags you over the coals with them. The sense of dread is so strong that the audience I viewed the film with was forcing themselves to laugh at (sometimes inappropriate) moments, simply because the terror becomes too much to bare. A large part of that is because, when you take out the supernatural elements, so much of Hereditary feels like an exaggerated version of what we may have gone through in our own families. We’ve all likely dealt with the devastating costs of death. We’ve all had that family member (or members) that was strange and carried tension with them everywhere they went. And although I would hope that none of your mother’s ever briefly lost their minds and doused you with paint thinner before snapping back to sanity with the lighting of the match, we’ve likely all had moments when we’ve been afraid of our parents and the stress that is eating them alive. Stress is a key word here. It gnashes and rips at the souls of each of these family members, and the audience, dealing crippling blow after crippling blow, and it is that uncomfortable sensation that is at the core of Hereditary’s unrelenting power. I'd even go as far as to say the film could be seen as traumatic for some viewers.
Hereditary also satisfies with genuine scares. I’m not talking about your average ghost shows up in the mirror jump scares, I’m talking about REAL, unnerving terror. Ghosts don’t just pop up and disappear. They sit there in the shadows, waiting, watching, turning seconds into minutes and there’s even one moment involving a headless apparition that almost feels like a call back to the bouncing ball in the 1980’s classic The Changeling. Those of you looking for jump scares every few minutes, this isn’t the film for you. Hereditary takes its time with the things that scare us, choosing to focus on suspense and nightmarish imagery instead of simply saying “boo” with loud stingers that shock us out of our seats. It’s a film that takes its time, and while some may call that slow, I call it “building suspense”, so that when the frantic finale does come around, your body will be so pent up with fear that you’ll want to scream (as many members of the audience I sat in did). With a 2hr, 7 minute runtime, there are a few quick scenes here and there that could be trimmed or cut altogether, but much of the film’s length is put to great use, building up its characters and dread, culminating into a satisfying and shocking conclusion. If only I could tell you about the image in the final minutes that will surely haunt me for days.
I enjoyed the hell out of Hereditary, but it isn’t perfect. Some brief moments DO feel completely unnecessary (though thankfully, most are short). Where I do think the film fails a bit is in its adherence to give the audience information as to what is going on. For example, there is something quite tragic that happens to the family after the death of Annie’s mother, yet I swear it felt like it took forty-five minutes before the family even discusses, more or less confronts this particular tragedy. I found myself impatiently waiting, wondering “when in the hell are they finally going to talk about this!?” In this case, its part of the brilliance of the film, because when that moment finally happens, the blow is HUGE, so I don’t take much issue with it. But there are larger ideas that ask, no, beg for an explanation, and I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to do quite a bit of pondering to figure them out. Hereditary chooses to save practically every bit of important exposition until literally the final seconds, and even then, you’re only getting the most basic explanation as to what is going on in a film that at times feels overly complicated. Add into this a sense that the rules of the horror don’t always make sense (such as a deadly connection between an art book and a key character that I won’t spoil), and Hereditary can come off feeling a little too convoluted for its own good. I want to be clear though, I’m not exactly knocking the film because of this. Its not for everyone and that’s fine, but it is a film that I expect will confuse or disappoint many audience members because of this.
With all of that being said, Hereditary, simply put, is a film that MUST be seen in theaters. In a genre where us fans have complained so long about the lack of originality and something truly scary, we’re only doing a disservice to ourselves if we don’t go out and support something as unique as this. Now, if what I’ve said has already convinced you that you may not like it, then by all means, Hereditary may not be for you and is not something I’m trying to pressure you to see, what with all of my fancy words and whatever. I do think, though, that despite its short comings, Hereditary is the type of horror film that is asking to be seen more than once, and I’m confident that fans will be deeply rewarded with each viewing as they begin to unravel these complex ideas wrapped around a simple slice of family life nightmare.
By Matt Konopka
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