WARNING: The author has tried his best to completely avoid spoilers in this look at 2018's ‘Hereditary’. It would be impossible, however, to effect this look at the film and horror as a genre without including a few tiny spoilers from the film. If that bothers you, please do not read on.
Stream 'Hereditary' on Amazon Prime Video here.
(Screen capture from the trailer to A24's 'Hereditary'.)
I. Horror and Definition.
Great horror will never just make you jump. Great horror travels beyond a visceral reaction from blood splatter or ratcheted-up degrees of sadism. Great horror does not operate on a jump scare a minute.
Great horror gets the audience near a place of insanity. Great horror makes you doubt your senses along with the characters on screen. Great horror assaults your suspension of disbelief, and you find yourself not wanting to watch more – yet, it is as you’re nailed in your seat – hands that seem to emerge straight from your DNA arise and pin you to your seat. The Journal Frontiers of Psychology did a fantastic study on just these questions about horror and the human body. Check out their findings at this link.
Great horror makes you question — genuinely question — what is real to the narrative and what is not. Great horror in that way is very much a meta study; it is us viewing how the characters view their narrative in the film.
Great horror most importantly causes revulsion, terror, fear and trembling in the very pits of your soul by probing the deepest darkest fears of the individual.
'Hereditary' hits on all these fronts of great horror but loses some of that lightning in a bottle in its ending.
Still, this does not mean bypass the film this Halloween, especially if you haven’t seen it.
Do not buy the reviews of it that are very black and white — extremely negative or outlandishly positive. ‘Hereditary’ is a film that must be examined with an eye to nuance.
III. ‘Hereditary’ and ‘The Shining’.
Democracy in art and film is vital to any free society.
Yet sometimes the masses and critics are simply wrong in their judgment. Sometimes the loudest among them are that way because a piece of art does not pander to their lowest common denominator of what they think art should be.
Like Stanley Kubrick’s seminal horror flick, ‘Hereditary’ does not pander to anything and it does not operate on a jump scare a minute like most of today’s horror. It is intelligent and intelligently paced. It does not use narrative devices or clichés to talk down to its audience.
‘Hereditary’ (just like ‘The Shining’) values your opinion and expectations. Then it seeks to subvert them.
IV. A Universal, Horrific Family Drama.
‘Hereditary’ chronicles the fall of the seemingly-fulfilled and happy Graham family. In this way, it reads as a sort of modernized take on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.” The theme of familial decay pervades both tales, just in different ways.
Director Ari Aster is a master at creating that decay in ‘Hereditary’. You can almost smell the mold and sulfur as you watch the Graham family come undone.
(L: Toni Collette as Annie Graham in A24's 'Hereditary'. Source: trailer screen capture.)
That makes the film somewhat universal in appeal. Most all of us can relate to some level of family dysfunction. In that way, the film is very much a family drama too.
Aster here took the most tragic side of that dysfunction and stretched it to its conclusion in much the same way a satirist or comedian would stretch a joke or punchline.
It’s like what ‘Two Broke Girls’ alumnus Jonathan Kite once told me in an interview: horror and comedy are really two sides of the same coin. Both are social experiences, and both depend on perfect timing.
V. Narrative and Performances.
Matriarch Annie Graham — brought to life by an exquisitely psychotic Toni Collette; her performance was perfect: neither understated nor hyperbolic — is an artist who builds miniature dioramas of her house, scenes from her life, and whatever strikes her fancy.
Annie throughout is the (at times) unreliable anchor of the narrative. Much of ‘Hereditary’ is seen through her eyes. The acting — while great all around — is really carried by Collette’s performance.
VI. Annie’s Demons: the Key to ‘Hereditary’.
We start getting insight into the mind of Annie and the collective psychological dynamic of her family with daughter Charlie — played by a “potato faced” Milly Shapiro, who indeed was made to look like a medieval peasant from a Hieronymus Bosch triptych for reasons it would be a spoiler to get into here.
(Milly Shapiro as Charlie in A24's 'Hereditary'. Source: trailer screen capture.)
Then we have stoner son Peter (Alex Wolff) and Annie’s husband, the Graham family patriarch Steven (Gabriel Byrne), who acts through much of the film as a bulwark of empathy and rationalism as the rest of his family (especially Annie) sinks into what is ostensibly psychotic grief.
That was really the key to Hereditary, what made it an exceptional horror piece — its exposition and director Aster’s deft treatment of the psychological material.
Aster really laid a solid albeit McGuffin-esque foundation for the unfolding psychological terror in Hereditary when Annie mentions at a grief support group that her mother had Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) or “multiple personality disorder” and also suffered from psychotic depression around the time that she died. Her uncle also hung himself after battling severe schizophrenia.
Indeed, we see Annie herself popping pills from an unreadable bottle (Aster purposely shot this way, with the aperture setting always making the bottle blurry for the audience) through most of the movie.
This touches on one incredible definition and spin on the “hereditary” descriptor as well, one that could’ve made for an exceptional film in the vein of David Lynchian psychological terror, ala ‘Mulholland Dr.’, where a existential earthquake in the film’s universe takes place.
Hereditary disease and the kind of lost hope that comes from knowing something like D.I.D. or schizophrenia is slowly rotting your mind, are profound sorts of terror that shake you to your very core.
VII. The Director’s Tricks.
Aster does quite a bit to string us along this path of madness and insanity, culminating in the exquisitely-shot “false awakening” or a dream within a dream that Annie has about half-way through — made all the more fascinating when we learn before it that she may have subconscious desires (manifested in fugue states, what she calls “sleep walking”) to murder her children in their beds with paint thinner and a match.
Aster exquisitely weaves this into how he shoots the dream within a dream, where we get deeper insights into Annie’s character’s motivations, especially surrounding Peter’s whole life — keeping the question of whether that homicidal ideation might still exist in Annie’s psyche somewhere.
Indeed, this is the kind of thing you see in the best psychological horror — some reviewers rightfully compared it to the visionary work of Lynch. That element to ‘Hereditary’ was played out, to some degree, but the problem was that Aster really didn’t let the psychological dynamics inform the ending all that much.
He has, however, credited Lynch's creative method as a huge influence on him as a director.
(Toni Collette as Annie Graham in A24's 'Hereditary'. Source: screen capture from trailer.)
It’s almost as if the ending was too clean, too neatly wrapped up, when the best horror to some degree leaves the most pivotal questions it asks ambiguously answered.
Does that part hurt ‘Hereditary’? Yes. Does the ending make ‘Hereditary’ unwatchable or not worth your time? Absolutely not.
‘Hereditary’ is still potent horror. If you like intelligent fare in your cinematic viewing, you will love the film — unlike some segments of Hollywood who paw like lemmings for the unintelligent, formulaic, jump-scare-a-minute garbage that permeates so much of the horror put out today.
‘Hereditary’ is a must-see film that unlike a lot of current Hollywood fare, actually treats its audience as intelligent, fully-rational adults. You owe it to yourself to see it as an intelligent consumer of great horror.
VIII. The Short Films of Ari Aster.
If you are still iffy about catching 'Hereditary' after reading this, you can see how Aster treats the film’s themes of psychosis and family dysfunction in the two early shorts of his linked below in their respective titles. Be warned, the subjects are gruesome.
The first is ‘The Strange Thing About the Johnsons’, which gets into issues of incest in an upper-class African American family. The second is ‘Munchhausen’, about Munchhausen by Proxy among a mother and son.
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