By Jason Abdow
Horror movies are one of the most difficult genres to review. This is because no matter how hard the filmmaker may try to frighten, disturb and scare an audience, there will be a group of people who come out saying “well it didn’t scare me.” And when that happens it is easy to ask yourself, what was the point of that? That’s why I think it is crucial to not just factor in how scary you might find a horror movie when reviewing it and instead ask, how much would you enjoy this movie if it was not scary. For example, if I did not find anything scary about last year’s “It” remake, I would still be left with a fun, coming of age adventure mystery focused on a group of charismatic young actors. So now the question is, where does “Hereditary” fall?
Personally, I think “Hereditary” excels on all grounds. The characters are well developed, the acting is phenomenal, the story is engaging and yes, this movie is deeply unsettling. The hype for this movie was inescapable within the film community. Immediately after Sundance I had been hearing reviews claiming it to be one of the scariest movies of all time and even one of my best friend’s had been hyping it up ever since he saw it at SXSW as one of the scariest movies he had ever seen. Given all this, I tried to keep my expectations in check, something I recommend everyone do, but was still incredibly excited to see what this film would deliver. Before I get into the horror side of “Hereditary,” I want to point out what made it work so well for me as a movie.
I think the filmmaking abilities of writer/director Ari Aster are incredible, especially for his first feature. Information in this movie is presented in a way that is clear enough to piece together without having you feel spoon-fed which keeps the movie engaging throughout its 127 minute runtime. This is until the end, where I feel the movie might have done a little too much to try to explain everything but this is a small complaint and there is plenty left to unpack outside of what is explained to us. While I want to give as little away from the plot as possible, this movie is best enjoyed knowing as little as possible, what I will say is it is focused on one family in the aftermath of the death of their mysterious matriarch. While the story obviously gets more complicated along the way, I think Aster did a phenomenal job of adding several different nuanced story elements in here without making the film feel convoluted.
The performances in this movie are also better than any you will see in most modern horror films. Mainly Toni Collette, who plays the mother of the family, gives one of the best performances of her career and one that in a fair world would make her a frontrunner for the Oscar in 2019 (this is very wishful thinking though). The range of intense emotions her character has to go through makes this a challenging role that she is able to sell every moment of. Alex Wolff also impressed me with the challenging material he had to deliver. There are several long shots that focus on his face throughout the movie that really show the nuances of his performance that in any other movie could have been reduced to constant screaming. Milly Shapiro is also impressive for an actress of her age. She definitely captures the creepy and abnormal tone of the film and never has a scene that feels awkward, as is usually the case with child actors. Gabriel Byrne is pretty good as well, acting mainly as the straight man who reacts to things the way the audience member would. His American accent was inconsistent but besides that he did what he needed to do.
So as you can see, as a traditional family drama I think this movie is excellent and definitely worthy of praise. But that is not why people want to see this movie. People want to see it because they want to be scared. And I would probably assume that the vast majority of people going into this movie are going to leave feeling scared. This is because I would agree that “Hereditary” is one of the scariest horror movies to come out in years. Not only did I find it truly scary, but it did this with remarkably few jump scares or anything else that could be seen as cheap. The movie takes you through an unsettling and disturbing journey that occasionally plays like a nightmare where things feel so out of control and strange that you doubt they can be real.
Instead of having the horror be in your face, Aster is smart about how things are presented. Yes, there are very disturbing images that will sit with you that are in your face but these are not the scariest parts. Many of the most memorable parts is what is being hidden in the background a scene. You occasionally feel like your eyes are playing tricks on you as you try and figure out what exactly you are even looking at. The overall feeling of helplessness that is in this movie is also what I find so frightening. As I said, it feels like a nightmare in this sense where events occur and it seems that nobody has any control of the situation. It is a rare instance where you leave a horror movie and don’t say “well if they were smart they would do…” and instead wonder how much could really be done in each situation.
There are also recurring shots of doll houses and miniatures, which Toni Collette’s character has made a living off of making. I think the allusion to miniatures that are made by the wide shots Aster takes of big rooms to make the characters seem smaller was a genius choice and continues the film’s theme of characters not having complete control. This is a movie that is definitely not for everyone, aside from being scary it is genuinely disturbing as well. But if you love horror movies and are looking for something that mixes scares and art perfectly then “Hereditary” is a must-see movie. Ari Aster has set a very high bar for himself for whatever he decides to direct next and I cannot wait to see it. And as it stands now, this just might end up being one of my favorite films of 2018.