I walked into “Hereditary” with extremely high hopes. The ad campaign was provocative. I had faith in the previous work of the creatives involved. I had seen the hype that claimed that watching the film was like two hours of exercise after an audience wearing heart rate monitors confirmed it to be so. I even went so far as to order a milkshake at my friendly, neighborhood Alamo Drafthouse, because that’s how confident I was in those claims.
Suffice to say that I probably did not manage to burn off that milkshake, but otherwise “Hereditary” surpassed all expectations. “Hereditary” is the kind of horror film that we have been sorely missing. It’s the sort of film that hangs in the air, when the house lights go up, like the smell of death.
Painting a picture?
The supernatural horror marks the feature directorial debut of writer and director, Ari Aster. Aster cites “The Shining”, “Carrie”, and a host of popular Japanese ghost stories as the inspiration behind “Hereditary” and small tributes to those titles (and many others) are scattered throughout the film. The film stars Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, and Gabriel Byrne, all of whom deliver stellar performances. “Hereditary” definitely carries the vibe of its distributor, A24, and several of their films came to mind during my viewing. As you can see, this is a powerhouse set up. I’m happy to report that it delivers.
Part of the appeal of “Hereditary” is that the promotion of the film is a tad coy. You know it’s scary. You can get a sense of the urgency of the film. But, one thing that the trailers did not do was give anything away. I had a vague guess of what I thought the film was going to be. Turns out, my guesses were uncharacteristically off base. In the interest of preserving the mystery for Shufflers everywhere, please see the IMDB synopsis:
“When the matriarch of the Graham family passes away, her daughter’s family beings to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry.”
I’ve already said too much. Moving on.
When watching “Hereditary” I was instantly reminded of another A24 film, “The Witch.” Or VVitch, if you’re uppity. Like “The Witch,” “Hereditary” is a slow burning film. Instead of jumping into the deep end of scares and startling you to death, the film starts very flat. Very slow. It eases you in and spends the entire runtime incrementally increasing that impending sense of dread. Until you finally reach the climax and shit has hit the fan. Yet, even at the “shit hits the fan” plateau, “Hereditary” remains very elegant and composed. High intensity does not equate to being frantic. A mistake many lesser films have made.
“Hereditary” is extremely cerebral. The film plays in themes of mental illness and family trauma. The demons we inherit from our parents (literal and figurative). It’s got the kind of layers that are sure to land it on a film school syllabus. There’s something grounded to it that makes it even more haunting. The scares are subtle and I walked away with that delicious cocktail of doom and shock and being deeply disturbed. Which is infinitely more satisfying than being pelted with jump scares. It’s a horror for the thinker and it asks you to pay very close attention. Refreshing in a genre that I love dearly, but that I have feared to be dead in the water. Bloated by too many bad tropes.
I do have one tiny concern. “Hereditary” has been hyped as the scariest movie in years. I think that’s a fair statement. It is a deeply disturbing film and the type that does not come along very often. But look back to 2016 and recall that “The Witch” was talked about in very similar terms. And audiences didn’t like it. “Hereditary” is definitely very different than most mainstream horror. It’s extremely well done but it does not follow the typical horror formula. I worry that the marketing for this film may have jumped the shark, slightly, and that moviegoers will expect something very different from “Hereditary” and may judge it based off that expectation. I hope not.
That being said, “Hereditary” is one of the most intricately crafted films that I have seen. Ever. Every small detail is beautiful and unsettling and carries great importance. “Hereditary” is a film that I want to see, at least, two more times because I just know there were goodies in there that I missed. There is this delightful tension that is present in every aspect of the filmmaking. Sound. Visual. The slow burn of the plot. Pulled taut like a violin string and you’re just holding your breath, waiting for it to snap.
High compliments to Aster on the cinematography. This is a really beautiful film to look at. Beautiful and so off-putting. “Hereditary” is one of the only films that I have ever seen that has shown me a visual that made me want to vomit. Well done.
Jump scares have become inherent to the entire horror genre. We, as an audience, come to expect them. I spoke briefly about the distinct lack of jump scares in “Hereditary” but I did omit one detail. Jump scares via audio cues. This is, perhaps, one of the most masterful elements of the entire production. Instead of going for the obvious jump scare tropes, that tension I mentioned earlier is broken by a single triggering sound. It’s a sound that is worked into the film slowly, to the point that you barely even notice it until suddenly it becomes very significant. It’s simple and direct and you come to dread it. That’s as much jump scare as we get out of “Hereditary” and it’s perfect.
Gonna let my music theory nerd show a little bit: the way this film is scored is really interesting. It swells and disappears in such a way that it pulls that overall tension just a little bit tighter with each chord. Scoring has become another trope in mainstream horror. You know the one. Orchestra comes in heavy on the spooky and then goes quiet, so that the jump scare is even more jarring. The score of “Hereditary” doesn’t play by those rules and it’s just one more item on the long list of things that makes this film so refreshing.
As I said, previously, the performances in the film are amazing, across the board. No weak points, as far as I’m concerned. Still, I have to heap all the accolade on Toni Collette.
What. A. Performance.
She’s incredible. Carries the film to the next level. She’s giving an iconic performance that deserves to go down in history as a staple of the genre. I was blown away.
I readily recommend “Hereditary” to the discerning moviegoer. From the technical aspects to the genre nods to the sweeping commentary on what really disturbs us, it’s a must-see.
Featured image credit: Courtesy of A24
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.