Other than the upcoming Halloween movie, the most anticipated horror film of the year was, without a doubt, Hereditary.
Due to the crappiness of Italian deals for the distribution of horror movies, I had to wait three long months to put my hands on the Blu-Ray, since I couldn’t find any theatrical screening of Hereditary. Gratefully, though, I managed to avoid spoilers of any kind and, even though I watched this film after the hype worn out, I could experience it as something I had absolutely no clue about.
The only aspect I was aware of was the way Hereditary had been received: audiences are divided about it, whereas critics almost unanimously loved it. Knowing this scenario usually results in me loving the film as well, I went into Ari Aster’s movie with high expectations. Before explaining how I felt about Hereditary (mind you, this review will feature spoilers, starting from the paragraph titled SYMBOLISM), I’m going to briefly assess positives and negatives of it, in a completely spoiler-free paragraph.
PLOT AND SPOILER-FREE REVIEW
Trying to explain the plot of Hereditary isn’t the easiest thing to do. In short – and because I don’t want to spoil anything in this paragraph in case you haven’t seen the movie – this film centres around a Toni Collette’s character Annie, a mother whose family is doomed by schizophrenia and DID (dissociative identity disorder). Her disconnected daughter, Charlie (arresting Broadway star Milly Shapiro), cries out for her grandma, and makes strange clucking sounds while fashioning morbid totems. Husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), has the air of a condemned man as he fields calls from the cemetery about Ellen’s last resting place. As for teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), he just wants to get stoned with his buddies, clearly unable to deal with the unspoken secrets lurking in his family’s past.
When a traumatic event happens to them, besides the passing of grandma, Annie goes through an even deeper distress, as it’s the case for her family… something more is, apparently, going on as well. Weird presences and occurrences (paranormal stuff?) seem to haunt them all.
This is the very vague and surface-level plot description of Hereditary. However, this film is everything but straightforward and simple: there’s so much going on in the 127-minute-long runtime, that makes this review rather complicated to write.
I’ll start by saying that I loved Hereditary, and I loved it more each time I watched it (three, as I’m writing this post). Allow me to explain why. First of all, the movie works both in a ‘traditional way’ and through its underlying message/meaning (more on this in the spoiler-free part). Obviously, fear is a highly subjective feeling and I must say that Hereditary had me frightened almost throughout the entire runtime.
This is a film that has a slow build-up, it’s almost a drama during its first act, but even the set-up is extremely uneasy and intense. That is due to the presentation: the technical feature in Hereditary are the closest to perfection I have seen in a long time. Besides an out of focus shot (which happened during one of the most intense dinner scenes in the history of horror), and the CGi ants, the movie is perfectly filmed and the editing is just spotless.
In Hereditary, the cinematography plays a big role. This is one of those movies that you like but can’t explain why. Well, that’s because the concept of good atmosphere and cinematography are very hard to explain. Here, the way the camera moves (showing us the entire frame and a few ‘figures’ hidden in the frame) makes a few sequences really chilling. The way Hereditary plays on a technical level with expectations and trope is outstanding. For example, you might have an instance when something hideous occurred but, instead of focusing on the event, the filmmakers keep other characters around, making us sympathise with their reactions and, thus, creating a chilling-inducing anticipation for what will happen next.
Also, the way the camera lingers on shadows in the dark and disturbing imagery is unbelievably uncomfortable: whereas most horror flicks release people’s tension through jump-scares, Hereditary rarely blows with a loud noise. Instead, the anticipation is expanded throughout the entire sequence and extended from a scene to the other, until the end of the movie.
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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Last, but not least, it’s impossible not to mention the acting. Toni Collette (who got nominated for an Oscar for The Sixth Sense) gives the best performance of her outstanding career: she’s asked to emote so much in every scene. Her character reaches the breaking point by the end of the first act, therefore from there on she’s always on the edge, regardless what feeling she’s got to convey. Milly Shapiro, who’s only 16 years old, delivered an insane level of uneasiness every time she was on screen; Alex Wolff perfectly portrayed a believable teenager, from the typical angst to the very genuine fragility of such a person. Gabriel Byrne was great in all his subtleness and Ann Dowd, introduced out of nowhere in the movie, gave an even more powerful layer of uneasiness to the whole experience.
I, however, have a couple of issues with Ari Aster’s debut. Since they’ll include spoilers, you should skip the next two paragraphs and go to: conclusion and final grade. You’ve been warned!
JUMP-SCARES – WHY DID THEY NOT WORK IN HEREDITARY? [SPOILERS]
Despite its very unconventional and unique approach, Hereditary utilises many horror conventions: we can find the usual “bumps in the night”, the obligatory research scene and the tiresome medium character. There are also a couple of elongated exposition scenes that drag for quite a long time.
However, these tropes don’t feel tiresome due to the great execution. For instance, the exposition is set during emotionally charged sequences, which makes it easier to overlook them.
Why, then, the jump-scares are a problem? Mainly, it’s because Hereditary demonstrates that it can be an extremely effective movie without them. To elaborate more on that, let me introduce two examples: The Conjuring and Goodnight Mommy (Austria, 2014). The movie by James Wan heavily relies on jump-scares (well-executed ones, though), therefore they work in the film because they’re the only source of fear. Goodnight Mommy, on the contrary, is a very atmospheric horror film, where jump-scares are nowhere to be found. If Goodnight Mommy introduced one jump-scare out of the blue, that would come off as goofy and ineffective.
Hereditary, just like Goodnight Mommy (and, also, It Follows) is an extremely atmospheric horror film that generates tension and uneasiness through unsettling imagery and great use of shadows in the dark. Therefore, the jump-scares in Hereditary only release that constant tension, making for goofy and not very impactful scenes.
What I’m trying to say here, is that jump-scares aren’t a bad thing per se (as long as they’re not fake), but they can be in the wrong context. Hereditary is the wrong context for them, since it’s a movie that would have been even scarier and breath-taking without them. This is my first big issue with the movie, the second one (next paragraph) revolves around the overabundance of themes, mostly during the ending.
SYMBOLISM [SPOILER-FILLED PARAGRAPH]
When I mentioned the overabundance of themes, what I was referring to is the duplicity of storylines in Hereditary: this is a film split in a surface-level story (a cult, led by grandma, wants to summon a demon and needs a body to do it) and a subtext meaning, which revolves around schizophrenia and family tragedy.
At the same time, however, Hereditary might also be about the sexist view of the world (MEGA SPOILERS: when Peter is finally possessed by a pagan demon, a voiceover says: “we gave you this strong male vessel and we freed you from your faulty, weak female shell”). There’s more, as in a recent interview the director Ari Aster claimed: “This film is really about a family going to hell”. And, I think there are other meanings that overlap in the movie, which, though, go beyond my understanding as I’ve not noticed them yet.
Now, I love films that challenge me to think, do research and pay more attention upon multiple viewings. However, when all of these aspects are put together in the last three minutes of the movie, that results into a big, goofy mess. In fact, I really didn’t like the very ending to Hereditary: visually, it looked a bit laughable; thematically, it seemed too heavy; overall, it felt rushed and disposable.
Nevertheless, most of the symbols in the movie can be explained and make sense within the overall cinematic experience. I decided to list the ones that seem to confuse audiences the most, in order to clarify some points. Bear in mind, this is just my interpretation of a motion picture that – similarly to the likes of Eraserhead, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, It Follows, Mother!… will be discussed years from now and interpreted in various ways from different people.
- The pendant that we see on grandma’s neck when she’s in the coffin for her funeral, at the beginning of the movie, comes back throughout the film and resembles the three heads carried by the demon (Paimon) in a picture found by Annie at the end of Hereditary. This means that, throughout the runtime, we follow the generations-long plot by a demonic cult.
- Paimon is an “actual” demon from pagan mythology and it’s depicted in old scriptures as a protector of artists, which explains why Annie is so good at creating doll houses and miniatures, while Charlie is great at crafting small totems with whatever she finds. This might, again, imply that the conjuring of Paimon is inherent (or hereditary…) to this specific family.
- Charlie, the daughter, is seen decapitating a dead pigeon. On one hand, this might refer to Paimon carrying three heads around; on the other, decapitation is (in psychology) seen as a metaphor for detachment in strong cases of grief and DID.
- Speaking of psychology, there have been studies upon studies that stated how schizophrenia and other disorders can be genetically inherited from one family member to the other. In Hereditary, Annie clearly shows the signs of many mental illnesses, which appear at first sight, but are also metaphorically explained. For example, when her husband catches fire towards the end of the film, Annie snaps for good: this is because Steve represents the rational part of Annie’s mind. When he dies, rationality is dead too.
- One of my interpretations is that Hereditary could be seen, as a whole, as a representation of schizophrenia. In other words, everything we see on screen doesn’t need to make sense because it’s how a schizophrenic person would perceive an otherwise straightforward story… I know, I know. This theory is farfetched and might depend on my will to justify the plot holes in the movie.
In fact, unfortunately, not everything makes sense in Hereditary. Actually, I should say that certain things don’t make sense for all the storylines: they only partially hold up. This is really a shame, because with a tad less of ambition this film might have been a masterpiece. Alternatively, Hereditary requires even more viewings and, in the future, I’ll find out that everything in the movie makes sense and happens for a reason.
CONCLUSION AND FINAL GRADE [SPOILER FREE]
Seriously, Hereditary is a blast. One of the most impressive directorial debut I’ve seen in a long time and, behind the shadow of a doubt, a unique horror picture. It’s got shortcomings that, in my opinion, hold it back from being a masterpiece, but it’s a great film nonetheless. If you like your horror movies to be familiar, entertaining and straightforward, then Hereditary might let you down. On the contrary, if like me you prefer your movies to be challenging, unconventional and demanding, Ari Aster’s debut will most likely please you.