Well, you knew it was coming: as a couple who can’t agree on any movie we walk out of, Hereditary, the much-hyped directorial debut of Ari Aster and generally-accepted contender for horror of the year, was always going to be high on our list of passionate debates. This article contains some first-act spoilers.
Every year there is a horror movie that gets used as an example that the horror genre deserves to be taken more seriously. In the last decade there have been instant classics like Let the Right One In, The Witch, It Follows, The Babadook, and the Oscar-winning Get Out: all of which play down the bloodier side of the genre in service of a more visceral and cerebral experience. Hereditary, the directorial debut of Ari Aster, is 2018s’ great hope for the horror genre, and it isn’t difficult to see why.
The hype around Hereditary has been insane and constant. Critics have lavished the film with praise, while people, including myself, were not only blown away by the trailer, but also wondering if the film is too scary to watch in a dark cinema. The film has even had a noticeable effect on pop culture, and I stress these next words, before it even came out! Open another tab and look at the trailers for The Little Sister, the Suspiria remake, even the new Halloween – the style is almost identical.
At the end of the day it’s hard to disconnect from all of the noise surrounding Hereditary, to get those critical opinions and The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby comparisons out of my head and try to take the film on its own terms. Hard, but not impossible.
Hereditary quickly eliminated all other movies and all other opinions within the first seconds of the brilliant opening shot. While the film is very referential to what has come before, Aster has carved out a corner of horror cinema of his own thanks to the uneasy balance of grief-fueled family drama and supernatural horror show. The acting is impeccable: Toni Collette pulls off the best performance of her career, Gabriel Byrne is sympathetic in his character’s emotional impotence, but it’s the younger actors that shine. Molly Shapiro is quietly effective in a role that is terrifyingly brief, but casts a wide shadow, and Alex Wolff matches Collette with a bravura performance of his own that is absolutely incredible.
Hereditary is one of those rare American horror films that doesn’t pander to audiences who, like myself, are used to the formula of jump scares and numerous set-pieces after dark. The viewing experience was different for me because of the sustained feelings of dread, but also deep sympathy for the characters and a portrayal of grieving that is ugly and embarrassing to watch just like in real life. In most horror films it’s easier, and at times more enjoyable, to dehumanize the character’s, most of which are doomed anyway, and enjoy the manner of their demise. Hereditary begs you to care.
The most common complaint about the film is the ending, and I completely understand why. In most cases I would agree, as I love the ambiguity of certain horror films where the question of what is reality, what is insanity, and what is supernatural fall into a grey area. Hereditary is the first time where I was satisfied with the decision of the director to give us a concrete supernatural answer. Or did he? Sure, it was all a cult ritual that grandma kicked off (before she kicked the bucket) to transfer one of the kings of hell into a male body, but I don’t think that Hereditary ties a big bow around this ending. It all goes back to the opening shot, where the camera moves into one of the miniature models of the family home in which the story begins. The unreality of this introduction is there for all to see and may be the key to keeping the film open to many interpretations.
I love this film, even in its most ridiculous moments it had me nailed to my seat, and even had me planning ahead to the next time I can get to the cinema to experience it all over again. Do I think it’s the best horror film of the year? Absolutely.
By Kevin Boyle
Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t think Hereditary (a word that took me three, count ’em, three tries to spell correctly) is a bad movie. In fact, for the first two acts, I think it’s a pretty exceptional one. A family consumed by the grief of two staggering losses become ghosts to each other, the relatives left behind haunting the family home far more than the deceased. Resentment, guilt, and the pain of familial mental illness and the struggles and questions it leaves behind even after loss drive the movie. Toni Collette puts in an excruciating performance, the kind that you feel you shouldn’t even be looking at, as a grieving mother groping for a sense of relief after the loss of her daughter at the hands of her son, and Alex Wolff, as the son in question, delivers a career-making turn as the terrified, guilt-strewn child left behind to witness his mother’s violent spiral into apparent psychosis.
And these first two acts of the movie are driven by ambiguity: what is real and what is not, we’re never really told for sure, and that’s the way I like my psychological horror. I’d rather something like The Innocents, with that impossible question of whether or not any of it was real, over something like…well, now, you mention it, Hereditary. I’m not going to go into the specifics of that third act, but what annoyed me about it was the apparent panic it had about telling a story so rich with questions and ambiguity: instead of really leaning into the slow, dread-inducing, ponderous nightmare of the first couple of hours, the last twenty minutes were a rushed thump of exposition that really felt like so many other horror movies I’ve seen before. I mean, there’s a literal scene where Toni Collete’s character opens up a book of spirituality so the film has an excuse to explain what’s going on: if this was Rob Zombie (my personal hero) delivering exposition as blatant as someone reading straight from a book of spooky monsters, critics would be tearing into it as obvious and lazy. But Hereditary has been deigned the critics’ favourite horror film of 2018, so this aggressively expositionary third act – which winds up feeling like that disastrous final scene from Psycho – gets a pass.
I’m not saying that Hereditary had to forgo a decent explanation. But I feel like it was a film that leaned in so deeply to ambiguity for so much of its run, and it felt like that final act was just Ari Aster attempting to sate mainstream audiences with a story that they could quantify. But with the audience reaction so divided from the critical one – with Hereditary far from a crowd-pleaser – it feels like he may have just shot himself in the foot with it instead.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image courtesy of Polygon)