Does Hereditary live up to its hype? Psychology, horror & definition.
Hereditary does not pander to anything and it does not operate on a jump scare a minute like most of today’s horror. It is intelligent and intelligently paced. It does not use narrative devices or clichés to in essence talk down to its audience. Hereditary values your opinion and expectations. Then it seeks to subvert them.
WARNING: I have tried my best to completely avoid spoilers in this look at Hereditary. It would be impossible, however, to effect this look at Hereditary and horror as a genre without including a few very small spoilers from the film. If that bothers you, please do not read on.
Great horror doesn’t just make you jump. Great horror doesn’t just cause a visceral reaction from blood splatter or ratcheted-up degrees of sadism. Great horror does not operate on a jump scare a minute.
Great horror gets the audience in the place of insanity. Great horror makes you doubt your senses along with the characters on screen. Great horror makes you question — genuinely question — what is real to the narrative and what is not in a film. Great horror in that way is very much a meta study, it is us viewing how the characters view their narrative in the film.
Great horror most importantly causes revulsion, terror, and fear and trembling in the very pits of your soul by probing the deepest darkest fears of the individual.
Hereditary hits on all these fronts of what great horror truly is, but unfortunately loses much of that in its ending. Still, this does not make the film not worth catching at the theater. Do not buy the reviews of it you hear that are very black and white — very negative or outlandishly positive — either. Hereditary was an exceptional film but it was not perfect. Still, the negative reviews of it — mostly from amateur “film critics” on certain sites that accept public reviews — show a peculiar lack of insight and lean toward (a word I never use) utter pretentiousness and narcissism: the very things many of these “reviews” (ironically) accuse the film of.
I am very much for democracy in art and aesthetics, but sometimes the masses are just wrong. Sometimes the loudest among them are such precisely because a piece off art does not pander to their lowest common denominator of what they think art should be. Even The Shining was treated that way (panned by audiences) when it first hit the big screen in 1980.
Hereditary does not pander to anything and it does not operate on a jump scare a minute like most of today’s horror. It is intelligent and intelligently paced. It does not use narrative devices or cliches to in essence talk down to its audience. Hereditary values your opinion and expectations. Then it seeks to subvert them.
Hereditary is very much the fall of the Graham family. Matriarch Annie Graham — played perfectly by Toni Collette — seriously, her performance was perfect: neither understated nor hyperbolic — is an artist who builds miniature dioramas of her house, scenes from her life, and whatever strikes her fancy, is very much the anchor of the narrative. Much of Hereditary is seen through her eyes and the acting — while great all around — is really carried by her performance.
We start getting insight into the mind of Annie Graham and the collective psychological dynamic of her family with daughter Charlie — played by a “potato faced” Milly Shapiro, who indeed was made to look like a peasant from a Bosch triptych for reasons it would be a spoiler to get into here; stoner son Peter (Alex Wolff) and husband and Graham family patriarch Steven (played by Gabriel Byrne) who acts through much of the film as a bulwark of empathy and rationalism as the rest of his family (and especially Annie) sinks into what is ostensibly psychotic grief.
That was really the key to Hereditary, what made it an exceptional horror piece — its exposition and director Ari Aster’s deft treatment of the psychological material. If you are still iffy about catching Hereditary in the theaters after reading this, you can see how Aster treats Hereditary’s themes of psychosis and family dysfunction in the two early shorts of his embedded below. The first is The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (which gets into issues of incest in an upper-class African American family) and the second is Munchhausen, about Munchhausen by Proxy and a mother and son.
Furthermore, Aster really laid a solid albeit McGuffin-esque foundation for the unfolding psychological terror in Hereditary when Annie mentions at a grief support group that her mother had Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) or “multiple personality disorder” and also suffered from psychotic depression around the time that she died, while her uncle hung himself after battling severe schizophrenia. Indeed, we see Annie herself popping pills from an unreadable bottle (Aster purposely shot this way, with the aperture setting always making the bottle blurry for the audience) through most of the movie.
This touches on one incredible definition and spin on the “hereditary” descriptor as well, one that could’ve made for an exceptional film in the vein of Lynchian psychological terror. Hereditary disease and the kind of lost hope that comes from knowing something like DID or schizophrenia could be rotting your mind is a profound sort of terror that shakes you to your very soul.
Aster also does quite a bit to string us along this path of madness and insanity, culminating in the exquisitely-shot “false awakening” or a dream within a dream that Annie has about half-way through — made all the more fascinating when we learn before it that she may have had subconscious desires (manifested in fugue states, what she calls “sleep walking”) to murder her children in their beds with paint thinner and a match. Aster exquisitely weaves this into how he shoots the dream within a dream, where we get deeper insights into Annie’s character’s motivations, especially surrounding Peter’s whole life — keeping the question of whether that homicidal ideation might still exist in Annie’s psyche somewhere.
Indeed, this is the kind of thing you see in the best psychological horror — some reviewers rightfully compared it to Lynch. That element to Hereditary was played out, to some degree, but the problem was that Aster really didn’t let the psychological dynamics inform the ending all that much. It’s almost as if the ending was too clean, too neatly wrapped up, when the best horror to some degree leaves the most pivotal questions it asks ambiguously answered.
Does that part hurt Hereditary? Yes. Does the ending make Hereditary unwatchable or not worth your time? Absolutely not. Hereditary is still pretty damn effective horror, even with the slightly inferior ending. If you like intelligent fare in your cinematic viewing, you will love Hereditary — unlike the “reviewers” I mentioned who were pawing like lemmings for the unintelligent, formulaic, jump-scare-a-minute garbage that permeates so much of the horror Hollywood puts out, and felt cheated when Hereditary didn’t treat them like children by delivering exactly that sort of garbage they were expecting. Consider as well that this is Ari Aster’s first feature film.
This makes it all the more disappointing that Aster didn’t more solidly cleave to that motif to the very end of the film. Yet, does that make Hereditary not worth the watch? The answer is a resounding no. This is still an incredible, must-see film that unlike a lot of Hollywood fare, actually treats us the audience members as intelligent, fully rational adults. You owe it to yourself to see it. If you’re still in doubt about it, check out the short films of Aster above, and then make up your own mind.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.