Guess who found time to go to the movies?! I did. Let’s do this.
Hereditary is a horror film written and directed by Ari Aster as his first feature length production. For those of you who don’t know Ari Aster, he’s the guy who made that incredibly fucking weird “family drama” short film that was like a Tyler Perry movie, except in this one the dad is traumatized because he’s getting repeatedly raped by his son. He’s that guy. I was looking forward to his major film directorial debut, especially when I heard it was a straight horror film, and doubly especially when I saw it was being produced by A24, one of the few film studios that does anything remotely interesting or risque anymore.
The film follows Annie, her husband Steve, their daughter Charlie, and their teen son Peter as their lives are slowly ripped apart by mounting grief and family drama. Also there are ghosts, I guess. Essentially, Annie’s mom has recently died, and her already weird family gets even weirder as trauma after trauma just keeps piling up until everything explodes.
Hereditary is being called the scariest film ever, which I fucking hate as a marketing gimmick. Horror is subjective, firstly. People say The Exorcist is the scariest movie of all time, and I just think it’s dated and hilarious. Saying “This movie is the ____iest film of all time!” is essentially guaranteeing that a huge chunk of the audience that would have liked it otherwise will go out disappointed because it doesn’t live up to the unreachable standard your hyperbolic commentary thrust upon it. Secondly, A24 should fucking know better by now. They’ve disastrously marketed, like, four of their previous films, misleading their audiences and knee-capping the films’ success in the process. They need to fire their entire marketing team is all I’m saying.
Is Hereditary the scariest film of all time? No, I’d say not. “Scary” is not the adjective I would use to describe this film. That’s not a knock against it, by the way. I think it’s a genuinely really great movie, especially as a debut film. It’s just not scary. I think people are mixing up “scary” with “horribly, viscerally upsetting,” which would be a better descriptor for this particular film.
Hereditary is upsetting and unnerving, non-stop. It gives you no breaks. If it’s not being weird in a very off-putting and nerve-wracking way, it’s only to make room for something that’s much more viscerally and overtly distressing to happen. Those are the only two modes it has, and two hours of that is psychologically exhausting; so I can understand why a bunch of drunk film festival hipsters were so affected by this movie upon seeing it. It’s an effective film.
It’s also a very slow one. It reminds me a lot of The Babadook, another film I really enjoy and highly recommend. Both are incredibly slow burns that build up an oppressively unsettling atmosphere before everything just goes nuts in the last ten minutes. Both are about motherhood and moms going slowly insane. Both have a “monster” that could very easily exist only as a metaphor for trauma and mental illness and familial woes. One of my major pet peeves of the film is when that ambiguity is negated in the end, which I’ll get to in the spoiler section of this review. If you’re not into slower horror movies–if you’re one of those people who goes into a horror film wanting to see gore in the first fifteen minutes otherwise you lose all interest–then Hereditary isn’t for you.
As I said, Hereditary is just unnerving. Nothing is quite right with anything that happens. It starts with a beautiful and very well-done shot of a miniature house, slowly zooming in on one of the rooms . . . and then we’re just in the actual house with actual people now with no discernible transition between the fake miniature and the real room. That throws you off immediately. And that constant state of being thrown off is where this film is at its best:
Annie makes miniatures for a living somehow. Either that, or being part of a demon cult brings in enough of the big bucks for a palatial woodland manor with an impressively sturdy tree house in the back. Spoilers, by the way. She has an art showing, but some of her miniatures are really messed up mini-reenactments of traumatic moments from her pasts and some are just normal, and it’s never made clear what pieces are for a show and which ones she’s just making. She has weird facial expressions. She says really awkward, uncomfortable things in places that it’s technically appropriate to say them in but still really ill-advised–like being way too honest about how bitter her dead mother was during the funeral speech, or going off on a rant about her family’s history of suicidal mental illness in a grief support group that was clearly not prepared.
The daughter, Charlie, just looks weird. Her face is like an old woman’s and a ten-year-old’s simultaneously, and it’s implied that something’s off about her; but she doesn’t see a therapist ever, and she’s in a normal high school setting even though she’s clearly not well-suited to that environment, and it’s just never mentioned. Their son, Peter, is a stoner who becomes increasingly more weepy and traumatized as this film goes on, and it’s just never addressed. A fucking traumatizing, PTSD-inducing event happens to him and he still just goes to school and no talk is ever made of him seeing a therapist or taking some time off. The dad just doesn’t seem to notice or care how weird everything and everyone is around him. When characters aren’t being weird and off-putting, the framing and cinematography and sound design are doing the job for them to make you feel perpetually off kilter and on edge. The only times it stops being those things is when shit hits the fan.
Major spoilers ahead. Skip to the end for the final rating. Go!
And by “when shit hits the fan,” I of course mean “when Charlie gets accidentally decapitated by a light post in the first twenty minutes.” That’s one of those viscerally upsetting moments I’m talking about. It’s not scary. It’s just distressing. Seeing that makes you feel bad, and watching the family’s reaction to it makes you feel worse. It’s the first of many scenes that happen in which my reaction was “Oh. Wow. Well, these people are just gonna be traumatized forever now. Ain’t no getting over that. That’s really sad.”
That’s what the more overt “horror” elements in Hereditary seem to boil down to, more often than not: Me sitting there thinking “Ah. Goddamn. These poor, poor people.” And that really worked for me. I was digging this movie and just how well it made me vicariously upset about this family’s building trauma and dysfunction. Then the Paranormal Activity ending happens, and it kind of loses me, to be honest. If you don’t know what I mean, Paranormal Activity is rather infamous for having nothing of real import happen until shit goes crazy in the last ten minutes in such a disjointed and out-of-nowhere fashion that reading the Wiki is the only way anybody could ever actually know what was going on and what the hell this cult had to do with anything.
That’s oddly specific too, because an out-of-nowhere cult appears in Hereditary in the last ten minutes as well. And, to be fair, Hereditary does it far, far better than Paranormal Activity ever did. The cult and its symbolism actually is established, and their entrance at the climax of the movie is at least narratively explicable. The part where a cult member yells at Peter from across the street to begin the demon possession process is genuinelly really creepy. I’m still not a fan, though.
What was once a story about grief and trauma and alienation driving an entire family to madness/death, with an antagonistic supernatural force that could easily be seen as real or metaphorical suddenly did a total 180 and turned into “an evil cult did it!” This wasn’t a story about mental illness and inherited familial trauma, it was a story about an evil Silent Hill cult being all evil and Silent Hilly. It wasn’t a metaphor, it was actually just a demon! A King of Hell/God of Mischief, apparently. And, sure, the last ten minutes of this film certainly seem like the kind of thing that would get a Mischief God’s rocks off, so it’s consistent in that way. I just really wish it ended with Peter jumping out the attic window, and then maybe we get a well-framed shot from the busted-out window frame of his implied-to-be-possessed body getting up and walking away. But it had to end on the out-of-nowhere, naked tree house cult scene, didn’t it?
Also, how the fuck did they not smell a decaying body in their attic? I know your house is huge, but if I can tell when someone has a litterbox somewhere in their apartment just by standing in the doorway, you should be able to smell a bloated, rotting human corpse right above your fucking head. Plot hole!
Hereditary is a solid film and an incredibly impressive debut for Ari Aster. I like it about as much as The Babadook or The Conjuring (sans the stupid cult ending), and I like The Babadook and The Conjuring quite a lot. The acting was solid across the board, for the most part, especially from the protagonist and her slowly unraveling mental state. The sound design and shot framing are two stand-out great aspects that did most of the work in contributing to the atmosphere. And none of the actors try to look pretty while they’re crying, which is a huge plus for me.
It’s always good to see a horror movie that is actually, well, good. The ending wasn’t great, but the other 98% of the film shouldn’t be dragged into the mud just for that. It gets a 7 / 7.5 out of 10 messily severed heads from me. Go see it!