Showcases what horror is capable of when taken seriously
In many ways, Hereditary is the horror movie I've been restlessly waiting to see for so many years. Despite my avid fandom for the genre, I really feel that modern horror has lost its grasp on how to make a film that's truly unsettling in the way the great classic horror films are. A modern wide-release horror film is often nothing more than a conveyor belt of jump scares strung together with a derivative story which exists purely as a vehicle to deliver those jump scares. They're more carnival rides than they are films, and audiences have been conditioned to view and judge them through that lens. The modern horror fan goes to their local theater and parts with their money on the expectation that their selected horror film will "deliver the goods", so to speak: startle them a sufficient number of times (scaling appropriately with the film's runtime, of course) and give them the money shots (blood, gore, graphic murders, well-lit and up-close views of the applicable CGI monster etc.) If a horror movie fails to deliver those goods, it's scoffed at and falls into the "worst film I've ever seen" category. I put that in quotes because a disgruntled filmgoer behind me broadcasted those exact words across the theater as the credits for this film rolled. He really wanted us to know his thoughts.
Like similarly fantastic and crowd-displeasing horror films of the past few years, The Witch and It Comes At Night, Hereditary is a film that largely deals in atmosphere and emotional horror. The Shining, which happens to be my favorite horror film, is a clear touchstone and I would go as far as saying that this is the first modern horror film I've seen that genuinely captures a similar tone and ethos. Much like that film, it delivers its horror through an intensifying sense of unease and dread that becomes nearly suffocating by its conclusion. Rather than startling you with cheap scares, it offers haunting and upsetting images which are often delivered without any of those overused sonic jolts. Perhaps most importantly, it anchors everything in an emotional core with nuanced characters who experience relatable family struggles and grief. And that is absolutely critical to what makes the movie effective and resonant: it works on a metaphorical level, using the supernatural story as a vehicle to explore the very real way in which a family can be absolutely ravaged by tragedy, and furthermore how trauma and mental illness are passed through the generations. I'd be remiss not to mention that Toni Collette gives a mesmerizing performance in this film that is absolutely unhinged and truly difficult to stomach at times.
For all that praise and as excellent as I think it is, Hereditary isn't quite a masterpiece. Despite the fact that I was very much invested and riveted throughout the length of the film, there were some detectable pacing issues. I feel conflicted in saying that because I'm very much a fan of the slow-burn horror style which benefits from a deliberate pace, but I did get the occasional nagging sense that things could've been tightened up just a tad without losing the effect. Some of the scares in the film, often the more "traditional" horror moments, also struck slightly the wrong note with me on a first viewing and were just a hair too campy or on-the-nose given how visionary and restrained the majority of the film is. And in its ending few minutes, the film really shows its full hand when a bit more ambiguity may have served it better.
The positives far, far outweigh the negatives here though and Hereditary is ultimately a remarkable debut horror film which showcases what the genre is capable of when it's taken seriously by a talented director. Here's hoping we'll continue to see more like it.
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