It’s a terrible idea to go into Hereditary with no frame of reference. Often enough, horror films are overhyped by movie studios, critics, or that friend who saw the movie first and just can’t shut up about it. No horror movie can live up to studio hype, so it can be a rewarding experience for moviegoers to completely avoid all publicity for an upcoming release.
Don’t do that with Hereditary. Read up first, at least a little bit. Ari Aster’s debut film is one which requires significant bracing — and perhaps a couple of drinks — before being viewed. That said, be forewarned that this review contains some spoilers.
The A.V. Club called Hereditary “emotional terrorism” and while that may sound like hyperbole, it most assuredly is not. One cannot overestimate the strength of this movie. Proceed with caution, or if you’re emotionally vulnerable, maybe just avoid the movie for the time being.
Essentially, Hereditary is a film about a family dealing with the grief of losing a child. Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense, Krampus) in the maternal role of Annie knocks it so far out of the park it’s pretty well confirmed she’ll get an Oscar nod for this performance.
Hereditary is nearly devoid of jump scares, relying on something different to evoke horror. Terror is delivered most effectively by a hauntingly-beautiful combination of masterful editing, foreboding sound design, and a visual style unlike anything movie audiences have seen.
On the editing front, you have a smash-cut, of sorts, which begins with a somber scene of Peter (played by Alex Wolff) in bed, face dimmed by shadow, listening to the sounds of his mother’s heart-wrenching screams as she discovers her decapitated 13-year-old daughter in the back seat of the family car. Again, Hereditary is a horrifying experience, verging on masochism. This scene jarringly smash-cuts to an image so haunting and disturbing it’s best left unsaid. It should be noted, however, that as little as five years ago Hereditary would never have received a wide theatrical release. This type of intense imagery is not something generally found outside smaller art house theaters.
But A24’s goal seems to be bringing art house titles to multiplexes. It’s a bold move. With other releases like The Witch and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, A24 pushed the limits of general audiences, without question. With Hereditary, limits are destroyed.
This isn’t to suggest Hereditary is a bad film. Much to the contrary, Hereditary is the single scariest movie of all time, bar none, and easily a contender for the best picture of the year, possibly the decade. More importantly, it’s an exceptional piece of cinema which will be written about, analyzed, and studied for decades. But general audiences are split on this release, according to Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s easy to see why.
Depending on the viewer’s emotional or mental predisposition, Hereditary may come off as boring to impatient, distracted, or less-attentive audience members, which is to be expected with any slow-burning horror film. Someone going through a serious emotional crisis or dealing with a mental disorder may well find Hereditary is not going to be far off from a traumatic experience. When going to a smaller art house theater, intense imagery is expected, but Hereditary is playing right next door to The Incredibles 2, which carries a stiff warning about flashing lights. It seems like it would be prudent to attach a small warning to Hereditary, reminding audiences that this film may well cause a full-blown nervous breakdown. Certain scenes are impossible to simply brush off, as are certain sounds.
While the sound design isn’t quite on the level as something like Eraserhead, it’s still more intense than anything else you’re likely to hear in a major motion picture this year. Toni Collette’s screams of discovery are bound to stay with audience members long after leaving the theater. Hereditary also features a dread-inducing score from former Arcade Fire member Colin Stetson, which sounds at times like a funeral organ.
All this aside, the most striking aspect of Hereditary is a unique visual style. Nothing in this film feels derivative, especially the aesthetic. We’re looking at rooms in a house which are unexplainable – they’re just wrong. Something is off with the layout of this room, but it’s impossible to put your finger on what, exactly, that is. The opening scene includes a slow camera pan to a dollhouse, which then becomes a little girl’s bedroom. A creative and slightly ambiguous transition to be sure, but once the camera arrives fixed in the bedroom, looking at the composition of this shot is inexplicably strange. From the get-go, Hereditary makes the viewer start questioning his or her sanity.
Night changes to day as if brought about by flipping a light-switch.
Outside Peter’s bedroom, there’s a mysterious glowing red window.
A forest surrounding the family home is casually and obviously depicted by miniatures.
Depth of field is used brilliantly to show Annie out of focus, but definitely hanging from the ceiling.
And that piano wire scene is quite possibly the most horrific image ever committed to film.
Hereditary is being compared to The Exorcist in terms of audience impact, but it’s scarier than The Exorcist. It’s scarier than Halloween, Paranormal Activity, Saw, Hostel, Jaws, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and even Candyman. But it doesn’t have to advertise that in trailers or on the poster because A24, while certainly proud of their glowing reviews, didn’t make a movie to simply sell as “The Scariest Movie Of All Time” only to be forgotten about six months later. A24 just went ahead and produced the scariest movie of all time, put it out, and let audiences do the talking.
Hereditary is a word of mouth film because while it’s not going to affect everyone the way it has cinema buffs and movie critics, the people it does affect will never forget the first time they saw it.
And they certainly won’t be able to stop talking about it. 10/10.