Hereditary (2018)

*. I’ve talked a lot about how our response to a movie is primed by our expectations. In particular, the hype behind a movie can really affect our experience of it. In some cases too much hype may lead us to expect too much. In others it may put our backs up.
*. Hereditary had a lot of buzz, but it was deeply divided. Critics seemed to love it. Audiences were less impressed. I was really geared up for it and came away thinking that it was just OK.
*. I give it credit for a couple of things. In the first place, writer-director Ari Aster can make a scary movie. A lot of the current crop of horror directors, however, are just as good and Aster is stylistically no different. Hereditary plays a lot like one of the Conjuring movies or any of its ilk. There are long, delayed reaction shots with suspenseful pans. There are shots where something scary appears unnoticed looming behind one of the characters. There are some effective jump scares. All of this works well, but it’s drawing from what has become a familiar bag of tricks.
*. The other thing I give Hereditary credit for is being something a little different. There are a lot of ghost movies coming out these days, but we’re not stuck in a rut like the early ’80s when all we had were slasher films. Or the 2000s when zombies ruled the roost. Today we have movies like It Follows, The Babadook, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, It Comes by Night, and The Witch (many of these released by A24, which also brought out Hereditary). To be sure these are still genre flicks, but they aren’t totally formulaic.

*. Hereditary isn’t something entirely new. It plays a lot like Rosemary’s Baby, for example. The first time I saw Joan I even said to myself “this must be the Ruth Gordon character.” This was not being particularly perspicacious. Mark Kermode said she “appears to have wandered straight off the set of Rosemary’s Baby.” It’s that obvious.
*. The other movie Hereditary reminded me of was The Babadook. Again there’s a stressed mom having a nervous breakdown and appearing to be the very threat to the family that she’s most afraid of. That the ending goes in a different direction isn’t that big a thing.
*. I couldn’t disagree more with Anthony Lane on this point. Here’s what he had to say: “[Hereditary] has the nerve to suggest that the social unit is, by definition, self-menacing, and that the home is no longer a sanctuary but a crumbling fortress, under siege from within. . . . There is no family curse in this remarkable movie. The family is the curse.”
*. True, but there is nothing daring or new in this. The family has long been threatened both from without and within. The family as a danger zone, for example, is the essence of a lot of Stephen King’s work, and is the entire premise of The Shining. And in more recent horror films, like for example the Paranormal Activity cycle, the cursed family is front and center. Indeed, the plot of Paranormal Activity 3 is very similar to what’s going on here.

*. All of which is to say that Hereditary is a decent little movie in the contemporary manner. It has some genuinely creepy scenes and builds suspense well. It also does something interesting in changing riders a couple of times in terms of the narrative focus. At first we think the movie is going to be mainly concerned with Charlie. Then it’s Annie’s movie. But then we find out that it’s really been all about Peter. That, I think, actually is something new and even daring.
*. Now on to some of what I didn’t like.
*. In the first place, I had a hard time figuring out what the hell was going on, even at the end. There are actually a bunch of video channels available online that explain confusing movies. They are very popular on YouTube. And I think there are at least half a dozen that try to explain Hereditary. I watched a few of them and they helped a bit. But my questions were perhaps more fundamental.
*. I understand, at least in general terms, what the cult or coven is up to. What I didn’t understand were things like how much the demon Paimon actually controls events throughout the movie. Then I was wondering why Paimon and his followers were involved in such a complicated plot. Surely there were simpler ways to achieve the end they had in mind. I’ll give Aster a bit of latitude here because King Paimon is supposedly a God of Mischief, but even so it seemed way more complicated a plot than it needed to be.
*. Or, to take something more specific: what is the point of Charlie’s sketchbook? What do the scribblings represent? What is their purpose? Why does burning the sketchbook lead to such incendiary results? And if Paimon can burn anyone he wants anytime he wants anyway, why doesn’t he?
*. I suspect Aster just thought the sketchbook was a neat visual. Just like I suspect he thought Annie’s dioramas looked cool. I kept hoping the dioramas were actually going to have some role to serve in the plot but they don’t. I also don’t buy any of the explanations I’ve heard for their being thematically relevant in some way. Instead, I think they’re just meant to be weird.

*. The second thing I would complain about is the way Aster directs his actors. Toni Collette is good here, but it strikes me as a one-note performance. Gabriel Byrne is so somnolent he doesn’t even react when bursting into flame. Milly Shapiro may be the weirdest kid I’ve seen in a horror movie since Danny Lloyd, but again seems spaced out most of the time. However, she is no match in this department for Alex Wolff’s Peter, who just keeps staring blankly into the camera as though still under the influence of whatever he’s got in that bong. How many shots are there of his thousand-yard stare? Even at the end, during his coronation, he has the same empty expression on his face. I wonder if that’s what his mom is referring to when she screams about “that fucking face on your face.” Personally, I think that line was misread, but maybe not.
*. I did get a laugh out of how the modern-day cultists highlight the important parts of books on black magic in yellow highlighter pens. That was hilarious.
*. The pacing is something else I would be critical of. The middle act here really drags, allowing us to get way out ahead of the plot. And while it’s typical of this style of filmmaking to milk long takes I think Aster goes to the well much too often in this regard (especially when parking the camera in front of Wolff).
*. So in sum I’d rate Hereditary as one of a crop of good recent horror films, typical of an A24 release in most ways. I think of A24 as being a slightly more cerebral Blumhouse at this point. As with all of these movies the photography is great and the score and soundtrack effective. I am concerned, however, at how, stylistically, many of these movies are starting to look and sound the same. Aster got a lot of praise for Hereditary but it seemed to me as though it could have been made by any number of new directors. They appear to all be working from the same playbook. There’s a lot to be said about how fresh the stories are in the new indie horror, but the packaging is starting to get old. It may be time to change the game again.

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