As a lifelong horror fan, I can confidently say that there are two kinds of horror movies that do well at the box office.
The first kind of horror movie delivers on thrills and jump scares. Friends have fun clinging to each other, spilling popcorn and jumping in their seats. Afterward, the group quote lines at each other or mimic trademark gestures or sounds, and Halloween Horror Nights has a new haunted house theme. These movies are certainly effective, but it’s not that hard to leave them at the theater.
Hereditary is the other kind of horror movie.
I don’t mean I’m going to check under my bed for anything scary tonight. I mean something else entirely, and quite honestly I don’t even want to talk about it too much because I want people to experience the film for themselves. But I’m going to talk about it and so of course, spoilers will go below the cut.
Hereditary begins with an obituary. A matriarch has died, and right away Annie (played by Toni Collette) gives a halting but brutally honest eulogy about the complicated relationship she had with her mother. Grandma’s death sets off a chain of events that at first seem normal to a family dealing with grief, but soon even the cracks start to show cracks.
Hereditary is getting mixed reviews, and for good reason: not everyone is going to get it. I don’t say that to sound cool or jaded, I say that because I could hear other moviegoers laughing at certain parts that I found incredibly effective–parts that were almost too effective. This movie upset me quite a bit at times, even though the projector broke two-thirds in and we had to wait half an hour for the staff to fix it.
But when the action started back up, nobody moved or laughed for the rest of the movie.
I can absolutely recommend Hereditary to fans of real, provocative horror. Casual filmgoers might want to wait for home release.
Throughout the film a leitmotif of compartmentalization keeps appearing: it shows in the tiny dioramas that Annie, an artist, creates, and in the decorative patterns of the house. Wainscoting breaks up the house walls, and the floor plan seems oddly labyrinthine. This theme is first introduced in the obituary, when Annie mentioned that her mother was a private woman with a lot of secrets. Annie herself demonstrates this capacity for secrecy when she lies to her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) about where she’s going at night. Astute viewers will begin to suspect they know the truth as more of the family’s history is revealed. During a grief counseling group session, Annie describes her mother’s life and all the tragic things that happened without countenancing her own reaction to them: the tragic past she is describing is her own past, too.
Although the film seems inclined to trot out the tired tropes of creepy kid and mental illness as a metaphor for supernatural horror (like another favorite of mine, The Babadook) it doesn’t go that way at all. Peter’s (Alex Wolff) breakdown certainly resembles someone suffering from schizophrenia, and is so far one of the best depictions I’ve seen outside of documentaries. I’ll be honest, I thought I had figured it out – Annie was doing everything because she had inherited her mother’s Dis-associative Identity Disorder, and I figured that Peter had, too.
Through the strife sails the resolute, calming figure of Steve, trying to make sense of it all. Byrne carries a few scenes by simply remaining tautly reactive to his wife’s building ire, and demonstrates the heavy toll exacted by living with someone in that condition. His shoulders are slumped, and other than the occasional drop of his chin or a wince, he does not react to her aggressions. Watching Annie gaslight Peter during the dinner scene was rough, but watching Peter and Steve’s reactions to it were even worse.
And that ending… whew. That was some stuff. It’s rare that a slow pan of the camera in a modern horror movie makes me cringe and curl my fingers around the armrest, but it happened. I had a true moment of dread, where I did not want to see what was just off screen and yet could not look away. And for that, I consider Hereditary to have accomplished its goal – to unsettle viewers while telling a gripping story.