Published on June 13th, 2018 | by Craig Silliphant0
Hype can hurt a movie, and Hereditary had a blast of huge, steaming hot hype. Thankfully, the film mostly avoids being destroyed by that hype.
Editor’s Note: We usually prefer spoiler free reviews, but in this case, if you haven’t seen the movie, you shouldn’t read anything about it at all. All I would say is that it’s worth your time if you like smart horror movies. For this particular review, we’ve decided to be pretty open about the whole thing in order to better discuss it.
You’ve been warned — spoilers ahead.
Seeing any movie with a ton of hype surrounding it is a dangerous proposition (ahem, Lady Bird, anyone?), and Hereditary picked up all the hype after its screenings at Sundance and South by Southwest, instantly putting it on every horror fan’s radar. A24’s little movie with a $10 million budget has already earned back what it cost to make and more in its opening weekend, which, as a horror fan, is great to see.
After that spoiler warning, I suppose if you’re reading this, you probably saw the movie, but in Hereditary, Toni Collette is Annie, an artist whose estranged mother has died. After the funeral, she starts seeing weird things around the house (you know, like, the disembodied spirit of her mother) and she goes to grief counselling, where we find her family had a history of mental illness. Her brother committed suicide years before, claiming that her mother was trying to “put people inside his body.” Also, she has two of the weirdest looking kids around and a husband (Gabriel Byrne) that deserves some sort of husband of the year award. Seriously, that guy is so sweet and supporting that he comes off as a bit of a cipher for the first half of the film.
Before I dig deeper into some of my ponderances and criticisms, let me first establish that I thought the movie was excellent. I can see why it’s getting great reviews. Except for the CinemaScore, which is in the toilet. Though I don’t know why we suddenly bother to reference something that gave God’s Not Dead III an A- and this movie a D+. I will just say that if you hated The Witch because there weren’t enough jump scares, then you may not be right for this movie. It ain’t about jump scares. Hereditary establishes an atmosphere of unsettling horror, using everything from visuals to sound design to excellent acting to drag you through the fiery rivers of your own terror.
I don’t know if I’d go as far as to call Hereditary a slow burn, because it does move along, but I did find that I had to tell myself to trust that it was taking me somewhere (and boy, did it). Scenes upon scenes pile onto each other, slowly building something, until the final moments. It’s not doing anything we haven’t seen before, but it uses its tools in an effective manner, without feeling cliched. And there are some genuine surprises, as well as some moments of terror that will have you checking under your bed before you hit the sack.
One of my big problems with this movie isn’t really a problem, and it isn’t necessarily the movie’s fault. As I’ve gotten older and read/watched/written so many stories and narratives, my brain tends to deconstruct story points, even when I don’t want it to. I’m a big-fat-know-nothing-know-it-all-asshole. Narrative devices become easy to spot. Little clues give away big mysteries. Reverse engineering the ending becomes second nature (I don’t know how my wife puts up with me, to be honest — and what’s more annoying, that I’m always calling the ending or that I’m usually correct?). In Hereditary, I saw the ending coming way too soon, because Rosemary’s Baby. There are, of course, vast differences between the two films, but Hereditary is basically Rosemary’s Baby as seen through the eyes of a family that don’t know they are Rosemary. At least until it’s way too late.
I copped on pretty much from the moment early on when we met Joanie (one of the best actresses around, Ann Dowd from The Leftovers and The Handmaid’s Tale), whose introduction was perhaps supposed to seem natural, but didn’t. And it’s not long before she’s showing up at just the right moment all the time, convincing Annie to drink a tannis root smoothie or do a séance or whatever. Because of the witchy book of her mother’s that we see Annie uncover at the beginning, it was immediately obvious that they were dealing with a cult/coven of some sort. From there, every clue seemed screamed, like Joanie’s door mat, and I could only think of her as this movie’s version of Minnie Castavet.
There’s nothing wrong with recycling that idea, but it also sucks some of the wind out of Hereditary’s sails to make the twist obvious so early. I’m curious to know other people’s experience with this — did I call it super early? Or did everyone? If everyone caught that (assuming they’ve seen movies like Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man), then the movie telegraphed it too hard. It definitely telegraphed things like Charlie’s nut allergy with all the subtlety of a telephone pole to the face (too soon?). Everyone walked in the room going, “Does that chocolate bar have nuts in it? No? Okay, ‘cause don’t forget, Charlie is super allergic to nuts!” You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist or pasty, basement dwelling movie nerd to know that this allergy was going to come up sooner than later. That said, Charlie’s death scene was a surprise to me, and quite harrowing. When the movie is on, it’s on.
I also wonder about other parts of the story — this is in no way a criticism, and I want to see the movie again to answer some of my questions — but does each scene serve the plot all the way through or were they padding some of it with scares that don’t ultimately mean anything? Like, what was the point of the book burning, really? It made for some great scenes, but unless I missed something (which is entirely possible), the book itself has no real bearing on what happens with the possession. It even seems to violate its own rules by burning Dad instead of Annie, since he didn’t throw it in the fire. And why did Peter start violently banging his mole against his desk? Again, it’s a freaky scene, but it doesn’t make sense that they’d want their new demon lord’s new vessel all smashed up. Nothing worse than taking over a new body and finding that your face is all fucked up like a soup sandwich. And was he even possessed at that point? Perhaps, but I thought Peter wasn’t taken over until Charlie’s light went into his body. I don’t need an explanation for everything — some mystery is a good thing. But some of this may have been muddled at best or like I said, at worst, padding.
Whether these moments mean something that I’ll glean later or not, the movie does carry itself with an admirable confidence from first time director, Ari Aster. After Charlie is killed, I felt myself being pulled out of the film by the nagging feeling caused by the lack of any authorities attending to the family (which isn’t a plot line I wanted to see, but in reality, it would have been something the family would have to deal with, so even a vague mention of it being ruled an accident would have solved this), and the fact that the family didn’t seem to be acknowledging Peter’s role in Charlie’s death at all. No one is saying anything about it. However, this all comes to a head during the dinner argument, a superb scene. The movie was controlling the experience and it wasn’t ready to give me this scene yet, which I can respect. It’s like the old Outer Limits intro: “We have control of your set.” The film said, confidently, you’ll experience the family reaction when I am goddamn good and ready. It wanted to first show us the mother’s grief, the funeral, etc, and then dig into the family dynamics.
It’s worth repeating, that I dug Hereditary. It not only works well because of the way it has been constructed on a technical level, but also because it explores themes like family, grief, mental illness, and grandmas that turn out to be the leader of weird naked cults, which everyone can identify with (well, except maybe the last part). It might sometimes show its cards too much in its homage to Rosemary’s Baby, and it may overcomplicate things sometimes, but it also manages to be its own thing. It manages to be an electrifying, scary, thrilling ride that still works well. We are experiencing a bit of a horror renaissance these days, and Hereditary fits squarely into that model.