Horror has been in kind of a weird place for the past couple of decades. Despite the fact that, at one point in time, the genre was a driving force in the popularity of film as a medium, like with the Universal Monster films of the 30s and 40s, and that some of the most critically acclaimed, popular films belonged to the genre (The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby spring to mind as seminal classics), horror has sort of become film’s red-headed stepchild. The slasher-sequel wave of the late 80s and early 90s cemented the genre as low-budget, teenage date movies, with little substance and cultural value, not only in the eyes of critics, but in movie-going audiences as well. Going well into the 2010s, the genre was still, more or less, seen as one which lacked any real quality or staying power. Horror movies were seen as nothing more than popcorn flicks, or quick cash grabs for studios who churned out sequel-after-garbage-sequel. There were a few gems, sure (most of which being produced outside of Hollywood) but, for the most part, all we got were endless retreads of Saw and Paranormal Activity.
Very recently, however, horror movies have once again started to retake their ability to serve as not only effective within their genre, but as legitimately good films in general. This is due mostly to studios like A24 and Blumhouse, who fund and greenlight risky, but highly-original and creative projects which break the standard slasher or haunted-house molds. I never thought I’d see the day where a horror movie got legitimate Oscar buzz, at least not since Silence of the Lambs (which, frankly, barely counts), yet this past year Jordan Peele’s genius, sharply satirical Get Out did just that.
However, despite how good these films were, they just weren’t scary. Sure, Get Out had some tense moments, and A Quiet Place had quite a few genuine jumpscares and startling moments, but they really never produced anything that lingered on the mind after the credits rolled. Films like The Exorcist tended to have a real staying power in terms of how effective they were at creating scares. Modern horror films, with few rare exceptions, tend to be far less adept at this, serving as really nothing more than fun, temporary thrill rides.
But good lord, A24’s newest arthouse horror flick, Hereditary, completely revitalizes the genre’s ability to be, well, horrifying. Make no mistake, this movie is NOT for general audiences. It’s not a date movie, and it’s certainly not fun. It won’t just startle you with jump scares, which you can giggle about and move on: It will disturb you to your core. I left the theater after seeing this film more creeped out than I’ve been in years, barely able to sleep that night. It’s a film that spooks you to your core, while at the same time making you sick to your stomach. And that’s not a bad thing; it absolutely works to this film’s advantage.
This film takes a fairly basic horror movie premise, of a loved one coming back to haunt their family from beyond the grave, and runs with it in such a unique, uncomfortable way that it transforms it into something else entirely. At its core, Hereditary is about family dysfunction, grief, and trauma, and deals with these themes masterfully, all the while corrupting them and twisting them into sinister bastardizations of themselves. A family suffers the loss of their matriarchal grandmother, who had a strained relationship with everyone other than her beloved granddaughter. In the wake of her death, strange secrets about her private life begin to come to light, leading her unstable daughter down a rabbit hole of the occult and the potentially psychotic.
The first hour and a half or so are the very definition of a slow build. At this stage of the film, it’s all about atmosphere, which Hereditary absolutely nails. There is such an eerie stillness to this film, even in moments of horrific violence or terror. You never quite know when the next moment of the bizarre and the unsettling is going to happen, because the film never lets you settle into a moment of comfort and security. Most of the real horror hear comes from the internal turmoil of a family unit, in the face of loss, rather than from the supernatural. The unearthly is hinted at, and begins to appear, but never takes position in the foreground. It only serves to heighten and exacerbate the growing stress fractures within this broken home. There’s a moment that I won’t spoil here during this portion of the film that’s genuinely one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to watch in a theatre. Absolutely harrowing.
The last 30 minutes, however, are a nightmare. Seriously, the floodgates completely open towards the end of this film, in an absolute whirlwind of insanity and violence. Once the plot begins to reveal more and more of itself (without every really outright stating all the answers), Hereditary goes from being a slow, albeit intense thriller to being a roller-coaster of adrenaline and genuine “What the hell did I just watch?” moments. By the end of the film, you’ll find yourself emotionally and psychologically exhausted, and honestly just a little bit confused, which is very much intentional.
The acting in Hereditary, as has become the norm for A24, is stellar. Toni Collette is phenomenal in the lead role, walking a fine line the entire film between terrified and potentially, hysterically insane. She also has the most raw, primal portrayal of painful, agonizing grief that I’ve seen on film in a long time. Whereas A Ghost Story dealt with loss in a poignantly quiet and reserved manner, Hereditary instead treats it like a gut punch, which is often the more realistic way in which grief manifests itself. Likewise, Alex Wolff does an amazing job at conveying genuine confusion and fear in his family’s slow descent into madness, as well as heartbreaking guilt and panic during the film’s most shocking and sickening moments. But the real praise should go to the young Milly Shapiro, who plays Charlie, the family’s young, developmentally disabled daughter. Her performance evokes The Omen and The Sixth Sense, imbuing childish innocence with an underlying air of sinister distrust and genuine malice that is unnerving from the moment she arrives on screen.
Likewise, the cinematography is masterfully deliberate and precise, featuring reoccurring, beautifully strange, almost 360-degree panning shots that are as unsettling as they are gorgeous. There’s a fascinating focus on architecture and framing as well, with Collette’s character being a model-maker, giving the film plenty of opportunities for insanely clever shots that I still don’t quite understand how they pulled off. The model/doll house motif also gives the film an almost Wes Anderson feel at times, which creates a massively unsettling, contrasting dynamic between the quirky and the creepy. The viewer feels almost voyeuristic, like they’re looking down at a diorama that they should never have seen. The lighting is equally amazing, creating a suffocating, heavy air of darkness to even the brightest scenes. My favorite aspect, however, is the use of tilt shift camerawork, which helps to accentuate the doll house vibe of the film.
Overall, Hereditary is a gorgeous, brilliantly twisted film that will linger on your mind for days. It’s powerful, manipulative, and disturbing, while at the same time being extremely grounded in incredibly realistic human emotion and family dynamics. I’m desperate to see it again to pick up on some of the finer details, but even after one viewing it’s easy to appreciate all the work that went into making such a freaky, macabre masterpiece. If you’re a fan of horror movies, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not catching this in theatres. But if you go, take it from me: Go with a friend.