Directed by Ari Aster
Hereditary is a riveting family drama and a pretty chilling horror movie. I realized while watching this that I have no idea what makes a great horror movie because the end, which remains creepy, was also somewhat disappointing in that it mimicked most other horror movies. You know, all the things that are slowly set up soon begin to payoff but in such rapid succession that there’s no real time to process what’s happening, at least not emotionally.
What I find so effective about good horror movies and about this one too, is the patience of the first hour or so. For every ‘scare’ or expression of dread, there is a lot of time to let it breathe and settle in. It’s that patience which often puts us on edge, giving us just enough of a taste of what could go wrong so that we fill in the blanks and imagine what will go wrong. Then, when we get to the end and see what the movie has in store, it’s often not quite as eerie as what we may have imagined.
So again, what makes a good horror movie? Hereditary is certainly a good one, but I thought it was at its best over the course of the film’s first 60 to 80 minutes, focusing on the family drama, the sense of dread and a chilling atmosphere, not to mention the horrific inciting accident which took me by surprise.
In the end there are demons, spirits and other supernatural horror movie conventions. They make for a nice aesthetic, but the way some people say they just can’t buy into medieval stories (like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones), I can’t really buy into worlds of demons and possessed spirits, if only because they always seem to be depicted in the same exact way.
That being said, I’m not a horror aficionado, so I think any hesitations I had about this movie have more to do with my feelings towards the genre and genre conventions as a whole.
In Hereditary we meet a very distressed family, living in some mountainous community that feels as isolated from the rest of the world as the family is from that community. Like with other horror films, the story is limited in scope, hyper-focused on the Graham family following the death of the grandmother, Ellen.
What we learn is that Ellen had a strained relationship with her daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), who in turn has a strained relationship with her son, Peter (Alex Wolff). Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is the peacemaker of the bunch, trying to keep the unit in tact, though this is a challenge even before the spooky and tragic events begin to add up. Rounding out the group is Annie’s and Steve’s young daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), one of the more memorable characters in the film.
Annie isn’t sure how to grieve her mother’s passing. She lived with them in hospice, but no one seems particular perturbed by her death, save for maybe Charlie. Even that you might write off as the troubled thinking of any child encountering death for the first time.
In a support group Annie explains how her father and brother both dealt with mental illness and committed suicide. She elaborates on the tense relationship she had with her mother and how this led her to keep Peter away from her but then to give her all the time she wanted with Charlie. Earlier she tells Charlie that she was her grandmother’s favorite, and this sentiment only becomes more unnerving over time.
Based on the movie’s title and Charlie’s strange behavior (she decapitates a pigeon, for example), we are led to believe that Ellen still has her fingerprints all over the Graham family, mainly through Charlie. The young girl might embody the deceased grandmother’s spirit, and the more we learn of that spirit the more we have reason to fear it.
At this point in the movie this is most definitely a horror film but not exactly a horror story. It’s a tense family drama in which content most clearly influences form, and this is when I think the movie works the best.
There are very unsettling moments and outright scares that don’t rely on startling music and jump scares. Instead much of the tension unfolds in relative silence, with familiar horror tropes (doors opening that shouldn’t be open) and with ghostly apparitions. In one moment Annie looks over and sees her dead mother looking back at her. It’s unsettling because it’s unexpected but also because of how muted Annie’s reaction is, even if she admits it frightened her.
I think these moments (and several more, one of which involves a soccer ball falling to the ground) work because they feel natural, at least in the ways your mind and eyes trick you into seeing things that aren’t there. In the case of the Graham family these visions feel motivated by the intense grief they feel and will feel, making it clear that everywhere they look they see the thing most directly on their mind.
There are a few amazingly tense and uncomfortable dinner table scenes and a fatal accident that is so disturbingly bleak, violent and sudden. This moment is impressive and dark in execution, but the brilliance is in the aftermath as we watch one of the characters involved become petrified, a shell of himself, unable to turn his head or utter a complete word. His response only heightens our fear of what we don’t see, and it’s the most striking sequence of the film.
All of those moments take place before the supernatural really begins. There are hints, to be sure, before the inciting incident, but it’s not until much later in the film that the dread gives way to outright fear.
So the real story is about what passes between generations, the things our parents give us and which we might give to our own children, whether they be literal conditions and illnesses or just a way of seeing the world. You get the impression that everyone in the Graham family was doomed as soon as they were born, and as the story pushes forward this idea becomes much more literal. There was never any hope.
The end of this movie reminded me of 2016’s The Witch, another effective horror film which seemed to work much better in its first half. But again, maybe these are expectations of the genre, that things have to get weird and ‘out of this world.’
Still, I was disturbed and glued to the screen during the first 80 or so minutes of Hereditary while the final act, as it offered more answers, did away with some of that initial charm.
Up Next: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005), The Chocolate War (1988), The Land of Steady Habits (2018)