It has been fascinating to watch opinions evolve around Ari Aster’s horror film Hereditary. It had incredible advance hype, with critics gushing about how it was the scariest, most traumatizing movie in decades.
Meanwhile, audience response has been much more tepid. Maybe a letdown was inevitable.
Although the film did well at the box office (with that much good press, how could it not?), CinemaScore audience polling tracked the film at an unimpressive D+ grade on a scale of F to A.
This seems to be the kind of disconnect that afflicted A24’s other marquee horror title, The Witch – so well-done and different that it goosed critics out of their torpor; but too outside-the-box to inspire audience devotion. I mean, to please the crowd, you need a crowd-pleaser.
I saw Hereditary with a group of ten friends. By the way, the Alamo Drafthouse had a priceless installation with a fake hotel hallway painted on the walls, and an adult-sized bigwheel, so you could re-enact Danny Torrance riding down the hallway. I got these priceless pics. Thank you Kacey and Tejas for wearing dresses that day.
After the film, there ensued among my friends a truly pointless argument about whether Hereditary was a horror movie or a “suspense” movie. For what it’s worth, I’m Team Horror all the way. Yes, it was suspenseful, but (if you really really don’t want ANY spoilers, duck out now) there were ghosts, gore, evil cults, demonic possessions, seances, an evil book, creepy dolls, a creepy kid … come on. Horror, horror, horror.
I thought the movie was pretty freaking scary. It wasn’t a jump scare or gore cue every second, which I think is what horror audiences were expecting. That would be traumatizing, in the same way running a half-marathon is traumatizing.
In fact, long stretches of the movie’s first two acts were pretty slow, to the point where I was constantly wondering “What is this all building to? What kind of movie even is this?” ADD American audiences are not big on slow starts. I wonder what the French box office was like.
The movie makes excellent use of silence, though. During long stretches of quiet I would shrink back into my seat, bracing myself for a jolting sound cue. The film got the whole theater audience with several of those sound cues – mass gasps, then titters as we all peel ourselves off the ceiling.
Tight shots on the actors’ faces also did good work to give me the creeps. I never wanted Alex Wolff’s face to fill the whole screen, because it would put me seriously on edge about what was lurking outside the frame. Occasionally something blurry and silent would cross the frame in the background. Those moments were sigh-inducing in a good way.
Comparisons to grief-drama In The Bedroom had me prepared for emotional fireworks, but the plot point that got us there took me by surprise.
The comparison that struck me more was the work of Yorgos Lathimos, who directed The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Lathimos’ house style is actors who seem to move through life in a Valium-induced half-doze, almost like they are aliens going through the motions of living human lives. They experience extreme emotions while talking and acting like humanoid robots.
Aster’s characters get emotional, but there’s a remove, a disconnect, that allows us to sit outside their grief, guilt, confusion, and depression without really making it ours. Some pretty out-there human behavior is made plausible by the fact that this is a fucked-up family. Mother Annie (Toni Collette) allows her ambivalence over the death of her mother, an often destructive force in her life and a source of tragedy and misery her whole upbringing, to highlight her own ambivalent feelings about her children. She clearly bonded more with her strange younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), while older son Peter (Alex Wolff) is left out in the cold. His father (Gabriel Byrne, an unfortunate bystander in his wife’s dysfunction) loves him, but the mother whose love he truly longs for can’t connect with him, and may have wished him dead (may still wish him dead).
The bonkers events build up to a surprising climax that actually pays off most of the dangling threads that kept me wondering in the movie’s slow buildup. It wasn’t quite the movie I was expecting, but I definitely knew what kind of movie I had been watching the whole time. (Ahem … horror.)
That’s all for now. Hail Paemon.
What did you think of Hereditary.