NOTE: This review will contain some mild spoilers. This, I feel, will be a place where I can explore some of the themes of the film without spoiling any of its surprises. I want this to be a review specifically for people who are curious about the film and are weighing the decision as to whether or not to actually go see it.
There’s a scene in the Dudley Moore film Crazy People where the main character comes up with a tagline for a horror movie that promises, “This movie won’t just scare you, it will fuck you up for life,” and based on that tagline alone, people come out to see it in droves, setting record box office records. In a way, that’s how I feel about a lot of horror movies these days, whether it be The Babadook, It Follows or The VVitch and even, yes, Hereditary. With each of these movies, critics have promised film-goers and experience unlike anything they’ll ever see, an experience in terror so grueling and unforgiving that grown adults might need to sleep with the light on. With Hereditary in particular, the critical scuttlebutt was that buying a ticket was some sort of Faustian bargain with audiences that might have dire consequences–that going in simply for a good time, you might be buying much, much more than you bargained for.
These reviews, although well-meaning, only hurt the movies. They want to draw in audiences to see a unique vision of terror and so they lay on the hyperbole a little too thick. They want people to see a horror movie that isn’t the seventeenth entry of an already-derivative franchise. It Follows was a decent modern-day fairy tale with some sequences of brilliant tension. The VVitch was a fun melodrama with an ending that I loved. The Babadook was a metaphor for loss, written and directed with skill. None of them were so scary that audiences want to pluck their eyes out. In fact, a lot of the time, people went in with impossible expectations that had been set for them, and then walked away disappointed, even though these movies were all at the very least good, sometimes even very good, or even great. It’s just impossible to live up to a promise like that. Being scared, in particular, is something very few people share as a common emotion. What scares us is going to vary from person to person. Tarantulas might scare one person pissless, even to literal panic-induced nosebleeds, while the person next to them lets it crawl up their arm. It’s silly to rank anything as being the scariest anything ever.
So where does that leave Hereditary?
Hereditary begins with an obituary. The title card, formatted like a column in a newspaper, informs us of the recently departed, who her surviving family is, and then dissolves into the story. The Graham family is not particularly reeling from her loss. Annie (Tonie Collette), wonders if she should be feeling more after her mother’s death. She’s worried by her lack of sadness. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) tells her that she can feel however she wants to feel.
Their children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), deal with the death the death in their own ways. Peter is unphased. He barely knew her. Charlie, though, Charlie was her favorite and she misses her very, very much. She sees visions of her grandmother, possibly luring her somewhere for a visit from beyond the grave. Spectral visions of the recently-deceased grandma also haunt Annie moments before she goes off to sleep, convincing herself that she’s just freaking herself out.
An unexpected death occurs that sets the plot into motion. What ends up happening is the most palpable sense of dread in a film that I’ve felt in years. A total accident that winds up with not just a death, but the most violent kind of death, and the way the person responsible for it deals with it sent shivers up my spine. They simply choose to… go to bed, and then let the discovery of carnage happen the next morning, all the while the camera focuses on their guilt-ridden face wrenching in terror upon hearing the screams of discovery. Very few scenes in a movie have hit me as hard as this scene did, and it lasts all the way through until the end.
Hereditary successfully has its cake and its eat it, too. It has what is, at once, a character-driven drama about death, loss, regret and bitter resentment, with an underlying edge of the supernatural. Is what we’re seeing on screen the result of a mental breakdown or is it indeed the result of spectral, demonic forces? Hereditary won’t tell until the very end, and even then, you can make your own assumptions based on that final reveal.
The focus of the dread isn’t on what goes bump in the night, it’s the idea that an inherent evil could be living inside of you, against your control, because of your genetics, because of where you come from. The dread comes from seeing the destruction of a family, who can no longer even have a meal together without a simple facial expression being misconstrued and turned into a screaming match.
What makes Hereditary as successful as it is is all in the acting. Small occurrences, a glass moving, a light dimming, are sold because of how the characters react to it. In a lesser horror movie, you’re wondering, “Why don’t they get the hell out of there?!” In Hereditary, you understand why they stay. They stay because there’s a glimmer of hope in the horror unfolding in front of them.
I don’t believe that Hereditary is so scary that it will fuck you up for life. In fact, I think it works better as a drama than as a horror film, but I think that it’s absolutely worth seeing, particular in a theater with a packed house. Hereditary played its audience like a fiddle. I saw people squirming, I heard them letting out uneasy breaths and hisses through their teeth. All this in a film whose strength is in telling the story of a family trying to overcome unbelievable loss. I think that Hereditary is not quite as scary as promised, but nonetheless destined to be considered one of the best films of the year. It was a hell of a ride.
It’s worth noting that Toni Collette gives what would be considered the performance of a lifetime for any other actor, except that Toni Collette has given so many of these amazing performances. If Hereditary wasn’t a horror movie, she’d be an Oscar contender, easily.