Films like It and Halloween have something of the funhouse about them. We watch, in part, and often more than once, for the thrills. That may explain why, despite widespread critical acclaim and an eventual strong box office, Hereditary (2018) received an initially dismal response from audiences.
Hereditary isn't that kind of horror movie. Although it has frights, it's more disturbing and distressing than scary. The opening doesn't feel like a horror movie. The first act, in fact, subjects the audience to one of the most uncomfortable and traumatizing family dramas in years.
The Graham Family have cracked; they're sleepwalking through Hell.
The Grahams have a history of madness, tragedy, and death, which begins before the film opens, with the passing of distant, secretive matriarch, Ellen. Annie (Toni Collette), comes to grips with the loss of a mother she never really loved. Then far worse things start happening, and nerves get rubbed raw.
The occult details start to appear in the lives of Annie, her son Peter (Alex Wolff), and her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Her husband (Gabriel Byrne) certainly feels the effects, but he stands outside of the family's haunted lineage, quite helpless.
A grave gets desecrated. Annie discovers secrets about her mother. People are not what they appear. Are we seeing events through the lens of inherited mental illness, or is some very real and very sinister thing at work?
The first act allows you to meet these characters, but the pace at which you do will not please all who watch. It also occurs against a very cluttered backdrop. The high school scenes try to draw parallels with classical Greek Tragedy, but this film lacks the single narrative thread of those dramas.
Then the film's most notorious scene takes place, as plot-changing and unsettling for 2018 as Janet Leigh's shower was for 1960. It stays with you, and sets up, horribly, everything that will follow.
However you interpret what follows.
Hereditary owes much to older occult horror, The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. Writer/director Ari Aster treats his subject matter the way one might any realistic drama, though with a certain level of art-house pretension, and with the clear intention that the horrors represent something. It would be difficult to miss certain other influences—- but that would be saying too much.
Despite these influences, the fateful road this film takes to its conclusion remains its own.
Acting is strong, with impressive performances from the family (including newcomer Shapiro). We're also beguiled by Ann Dowd, most familiar to contemporary audiences as the hideous Aunt Lydia in the TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale.
She plays someone a little different here.
The film raises a number of questions, but that is part of the package. Only one question strikes me as distracting, rather than deliberate. When does Hereditary take place? Costumes and set pieces appear to be contemporary, but other elements don't quite fit. Cell phones, though present, seem stunningly underused, especially in the teen world. Peter and his friends discuss Facebook as though it were still a thing with adolescents. And yet this doesn't appear to be the sort of stylized, temporally uncertain world we see in It Follows or (to a lesser extent), The Babadook. Are we in the recent past, perhaps a decade ago? Is Astor simply unaware of—- or choosing to ignore-- how contemporary teen culture works? Or are we, in the end, just supposed to accept the film's setting on its own terms? I don't mean to nitpick, but we are watching, after all, a film which draws much of its effect from the conflict between apparent events and consensus reality.
In the end, Hereditary proves an uneven, unsettling work of cinematic art, but a work of art nonetheless.
Not everyone will want to see it.
And if you do, you may not want to see it again.
Written and directed by Ari Aster
Toni Collette as Annie Graham
Gabriel Byrne as Steve Graham
Alex Wolff as Peter Graham
Milly Shapiro as Charlie Graham
Ann Dowd as Joan
Mallory Bechtel as Bridget
Jake Brown as Brendan
David Stanley as Smiling Man