I have had to sit with Hereditary for a few days to figure out my thoughts about it. If I am being honest, I still don’t know how I feel about the film. There are aspects about it that I love, and then there are things about it that I loathe.
It’s a hard film to watch, not only because there are terrifying things that are happening on the screen, but because you don’t fully understand those things until the last minutes of the film. You spend much of the film in the dark, just experiencing the events along with the family. In that way, Hereditary is genius filmmaking. It subverts expectations, twists the story in interesting directions, and never gives away more than it needs to.
It is also one of the few horror movies that is about more than jump scares and gore. At its core, Hereditary is about a grieving family that doesn’t know how to communicate with each other. Each character is fleshed out so well and the actors really bring them to life. Toni Collette and Alex Wolff are the particular standouts, but perhaps that’s because the story really puts those characters through the wringer.
The aesthetic of the film is amazing as well. It opens with a shot that zooms into a room of the house filled with detailed dioramas that Toni Collette’s character builds as art pieces. The shot focuses on a house that looks like the exterior we just saw and begins to zoom into a bedroom, where suddenly a character walks into that room and wakes another. That opening shot is freaky, and also alerts us that we are watching things unfold on a stage. Whose stage and who is the audience is unclear for the rest of the film.
I can’t really share the things I hated about the movie without spoiling the film, but I am going to try. Just be warned, if you want to see this and haven’t yet, perhaps this is where you stop reading.
There are things in horror movies that defy belief, or at least things that I believe to be real. Those movies may get a jump scare out of me, but I won’t leave afraid of the dark or anything (except any movies to do with clowns….). Then there are plot elements or things in horror movies that I do think are things that happen in real life. Those things can make me very afraid.
Let’s just say, Hereditary employs plot elements that I don’t necessarily think are outrageous. I am not saying that I believe everything that happens in this movie could happen in real life, but aspects of it terrify me because there is some truth to it, in my opinion. Watching a filmmaker at the top of his craft make a movie that so intimately involves things that I find terrifying makes me very uncomfortable.
I know the filmmakers, cast and crew have to immerse themselves in that world to bring it to life. Watching those things unfold just feels like you are almost participating in them at some level. In this film, I really DID NOT like that feeling. The end of the film had me squirming and uncomfortable. It feels like a glorification of the things depicted on the screen to that point.
Perhaps the film is built in order to make you feel those things. If I look at the ending as a meta-commentary on the audience of horror films, it’s less uncomfortable for me. It brings the audience a sick sort of pleasure to watch the torment of others, as long as that torment doesn’t happen to them.
Maybe the makers of Hereditary are holding a mirror up to us and giving us a glimpse of how dark that is? As I stated before, the opening shot sets the stage, but it is unclear who the audience is. By the end of the film that does become clear, and perhaps they are a stand-in for the actual theater audience. I am not sure that was the filmmaker’s intent, so I can’t really rest in those feelings, but I do like the idea.
All that to say, this is a hard movie for me to give a positive review to because of how I felt walking out. It’s well made, well acted, and the bulk of the story is a fascinating study of grief (think In the Bedroom or Manchester by the Sea –both better films–, but of the horror genre). It’s when you see what has been going on underneath that brilliant family drama that the unnerving feelings start to grow. Perhaps that is why it is being heralded as one of the best horror films in years. It doesn’t let its audience off the hook so easily.