I’m sure all of us at GoodBadTaste, current and former members, sound like broken records when we sing the praises of New York-based studio A24. Even if we’re not always buying what they’re selling, you know as soon as they drop a trailer for their latest *insert genre here* film, we’re getting ourselves hyped and figuring out when we’re going to see it. This is especially true when it comes to their horror movies. However, the trailer for their latest release Hereditary (2018) left me apprehensive. The camerawork looks incredibly intriguing in the teaser, but the actual content of the story is left tactfully vague. The trailer just didn’t leave me hyped the same way A24’s more original films do, but I dutifully attended an opening weekend screening anyways to check out the supposed Oscar contender. Hereditary is certainly an entertaining film – thanks in strong part to the performances, which have been heavily advertised, and the unique cinematography – but the story itself feels like a hodge-podge of different ideas and left me wanting more.
The premise of Hereditary is a very simple one, and its familiarity probably speaks for its decently strong showing at the box office. Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is a miniaturist artist whose mother passed away in events preceding the film, which opens with Annie and her family attending the funeral. Annie struggles with her grief because she wasn’t close to her secretive, mentally ill mother and still feels resentful about how she treated her, and vice versa. On top of this, Annie also comes from a family that has suffered from many deaths related to severe mental illness. These complicated feelings manifest in her treatment of her two children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Sharpiro), to whom she desperately tries to be a better mother than her own, who in turn literally haunts her in the form of spectral visions. Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) tries to keep her and the family grounded as he seeks to help Annie make sense of her own mental illness, and/or a possible haunting.
I’ve seen a lot of people praise this film and seen advertisements describing this film as “art house,” but I thought this film relies on bad mainstream horror tropes a little too much. The music, which is used to strong effect in the beginning of the film, wears out its welcome after the first third and becomes a distraction that hampered my enjoyment of the rest of the film. Music is the crutch of lame blockbusters telling the audience how to feel, instead of allowing the visuals on-screen to speak for themselves. In Hereditary, the music is an overbearing force; I couldn’t tell you how hard I rolled my eyes as soon as I heard that cliche string-plucking that’s always used when scary insects are on screen being scary. Credit to the filmmakers though for letting the music cut out when using another eye-rolling cliche: jump scares. There technically aren’t that many jump scares throughout the film, and they aren’t the crux for all of the terror, but for a film that I thought was going to cleverly interweave the psychological horror with the supernatural there sure was enough shit jumping out of nowhere for me to go “really?”– e.g. the crow hitting the window, which can be seen in the trailer. Now, to be fair, these things weren’t experience-ruiners for me. Far from it. Hereditary is a very entertaining and attention-grabbing film, and I left the theater feeling satisfied. If anything, these tropes speak to how conventional this film really is, and how the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.
As I mentioned, the acting is all incredible and the camerawork is equally as impressive. Milly Shapiro gives an understated yet charismatic performance as the “oddball” daughter, while Toni Collette and Alex Wolff inject tons of creepy vivacity into their film-carrying roles. I’m sure I had problems with the writing partly because this is clearly meant to be a character/performance-driven film more than story/plot-driven one and, for what it’s worth, this aspect is executed phenomenally. Director Ari Aster knows exactly when to hold on a character’s performance or reaction to something in a close up to heighten the mood and tension, and this works so well in getting you emotionally invested in their actions that you’ll literally forget to breathe. It’s these scenes, combined with scenes in which the camera utilizes depth of field and boxes the characters in a long shot without cutting (very The Shining), that results in the film’s more tense and memorable scenes and moments. Even when you’re treated to scenes in the third act in which you’re meant to look at the scary thing out of focus in the background crawling on the wall – which has been done so much in horror – you get into it because the interesting camerawork helps sell the character’s genuine performances so effectively.
Where Hereditary loses me is in the actual writing of the story. The way this film is written, it feels like Ari Aster came up with the initial concept of a modern-day Satanic panic film, ended up writing a better tense psychological drama film around it, but then realized he needed to stick to his initial horror premise. Despite the lack of information in the trailer concerning the supernatural aspects of this film, it’s no spoiler to say that Annie’s mom dabbled in witchcraft and you’re meant to be kept on your toes the whole film about whether the characters’ experiences are the result of spirits or their own deteriorating psyches. The first third of this film does an excellent job of balancing this aspect with establishing emotional and interesting inter-family dynamics. After a very powerfully acted and gripping dinner scene with the family, the film ceases to say anything interesting about the family members and entirely shifts its focus to developing the mental illness/satanism twist. This entire time I kept thinking that this would play back into the character dynamics in some interesting way, but it never does. We hardly ever see the family members interact with each other after this pivotal dinner scene and the film switches its focus back and forth between the mom and son as they experience their own sort of struggles with grief and loss, which honestly disconnected me from the action. There are some scenes with the whole family that do act as exceptions, but outside of being spooky these scenes, as well as the single character focus scenes, don’t develop the story or tell us anything we didn’t already know about Annie or Peter (Steve is the straight man/blank slate that doesn’t matter). The film will slowly and meticulously build up to these different, legitimately enjoyable horror movie set-pieces that feel spooky in the moment, but at the same time act as an edging mechanic to keep you tense until the The Conjuring-esqe third act climax. There’s also just too much time to breathe in-between these moments of fear and tension.
Ultimately, I was struggling to find reasons to care about the characters and their circumstances because I kept getting lost with Aster’s intended direction for the story. Maybe that’s my own fault – that I kept coming up with these expectations about the story, and I also could’ve been taking the supernatural elements a bit too literally or seriously, but what was actually happening only gave me surface level enjoyment. There’s a reason so many people don’t like the ending or find it satisfying and it’s because that witchcraft stuff is complicated for no reason and doesn’t do as much as it could have to build on the whole ‘generational mental illness and trauma’ metaphor that has been garnering so much praise.
Hereditary is meant to be an atmospheric experience that is elevated by its strong performances and excellent cinematography. It’s clear that this approach works with a lot of people and it’s honestly great that that’s the case because as a horror fan I think it bodes well for the future of wide-release horror. Me personally, I thought this film stretched itself too thin trying to do too much (what the hell was with that glowing blue pulse thing?) and, through no fault of its own, the really good parts were just too good. What Aster was executing was not that interesting, but boy did he execute it well.
I didn’t love Hereditary as much as everyone else, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see this movie. It is a solidly entertaining film with top notch acting and cinematography, and I’m honestly very glad to see a horror movie get so much critical praise. The story might have not been that well put together and things move a little too slowly at times, but one’s patience will be rewarded with some of the most tense and emotionally gripping scenes in a movie this year so far.