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Hereditary: Dissecting the Horror of Tragedy

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A24

It’s time to talk about Hereditary.  I could try to play it cool and pretend that wasn’t the most exciting sentence I’ve ever been able to honestly write, but let’s dispense with such needless artifice here and now; we may as well be on the level, so let me establish promptly and entirely that I will be approaching the subject with exactly zero objectivity. I have spent the past five months anticipating Hereditary, hooked from the first pissed pants reviews out of Sundance.  I scoured the internet for spoilers and read every review written about it – and make no mistake, there were a lot of reviews written.  This movie had some sort of basic, primordial hold on critics, and the less they told me about it, the more I wanted it. And while I was throwing myself uncynically, unironically into the hopes that it would scare the unborn child right out of my sister-in-law, ravenously chomping up every weird bit of A24 marketing, every accidental airing of the trailer before Peter Rabbit, factions of horror fans blistered with equal fertility, who anticipated disappointment.  Citing The Witch and It Comes at Night (both movies I loved but would agree, are nebulous at best as horror) as recent examples of “the scariest movie of the last however many years” that turned out to not be that scary, there was a steady rumble – and a fear I concede that I shared-that Hereditary could not possibly live up to it’s hype.  So does it?

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Before I can even begin to address that concern, let’s acknowledge one fundamental, irrefutable truth.  Hereditary is a great movie.  It is beautifully shot, carefully and deliberately written, populated by well conceived and interesting characters.  I will not assume that everyone had the same wild eyed, nearly manic, compulsion to see it opening weekend that I did, and out of respect for that, I will studiously be avoiding spoilers (we will return to the question of spoilers in a bit, because guys, I’ve got some thoughts), but it gives nothing away to say that every seed that is planted eventually blossoms, even if we as a viewer have forgotten it was there to begin with.  Much has been said of Toni Collette’s performance, and none of it is enough.  She is every adjective you’ve seen applied to her and seventeen more that haven’t been created yet – the language simply does not exist.  But Alex Wolff, all of 21 years old, is a dynamic, magnetic force of nature.  His performance here should establish him as an enormous star; it is an Oscar caliber performance, as careful in its attention to minute detail – the restrained watering of his grief struck eyes – as it is honest in enormous, unmanageable wreckage.  That Milly Shapiro and Gabriel Byrne don’t quite match the ecstatic heights of Collette and Wolff is no insult or slight to their presences; their roles are limited, and they make hay of what they have.  Even tabling the unimpeachable delivery of the lead actors, the movie is a stunning work of art; it is beautiful in the way that destruction sometimes is.  There is care and attention and room; the characters are given life and love and personalities; they are not merely cannon fodder we are waiting to see destroyed by some force of evil.  At the risk of being pithy, their story matters.  And their story – the circumstances and cruelties visited upon their insular family unit – is where the horror is.  Horror, by the most literal definition – horrific things happen, horrific causes of horrific events.  And much of it is based on a reality that is blood chillingly grounded; infinitely possible.  But does the horror of the real world translate to an effective horror movie?

A24

The answer is both yes and no and also entirely impossible.  Often as audiences we have an expectation for horror and comedy to be definitively so – it’s funny or it’s scary, ignoring the nuanced but blatant fact that what is frightening and what is amusing is extremely subjective.  There is no possible universal fright.  So what then is the definition of an effective horror movie?  And IS Hereditary even a horror film?  Horror has, as a genre, become a bit undone by many of its own tropes and trappings – enough so that movies like Scream, Cabin in the Woods, and Behind the Mask  have been very successful simply by acknowledging and satirizing the standard structure and expectations of the genre, then subtly subverting.  In many ways, Hereditary does the same; it is clearly aware of the expectations of a horror movie – the necessary body count, the value of withheld information, well deployed gore – while not relying on them as crutches to carry the weight of the film.  Whether or not a viewer ultimately finds Hereditary frightening, its effectiveness is entirely its own.  It does not rely on cheap jump scares, or unearned gore.  It does not throw a series of horned up teenagers through woodchippers just to rack up the casualties.  And it does not count on a faceless, unstoppable force to wreak havoc but ultimately be outdone by a final girl.  It allows horror and fear and destruction to be a force that is omnipresent, that moves through its characters and their lives with the assurance of an old friend.  Careful watchers will note that time and again, the teacher in the background of the classroom scenes is discussing fate and free will.  The nature of tragedy.  Is it worse if we create our own destruction, or if some outside force imposes it on us?

A24

And now a quick word on spoilers.  I myself rarely worry about spoilers – what you read is very different from what you see executed, and I am interested in the how as much as the what. That said, I think there is value to seeing this movie as green as you possibly can.  Not necessarily to elicit an “Oh shit” reaction, but to replicate, as nearly as possible, the same shell shocked feelings the family must endure.  Some of that grounded horror I was talking about is based on the difficulty of finding your footing when a series of nightmares unfolds on itself and won’t stop; the purest way to feel that is to know nothing.  That said, it was abundantly clear to me from my watch that there was no possible way to catch every detail of the movie in one watch.  Am I seeing it again tonight? I’m not NOT seeing it again tonight.

I could readily speak for a prolonged and indefinite period of time about Hereditary and still barely scratch the surface.  That said, I see I’ve already been pretty damn verbose and not offered my final conclusion, which I assure you is as unsatisfying as some will find Hereditary.  It is a beautiful movie, filled with ugly things, some of which are deeply, abundantly upsetting.  It lingers and haunts, but I would argue seldom scares in the way that we expect horror movies to (I don’t offer this as a criticism; I think it is far superior to not lean into the easy tropes, but it is worth noting, if you are going in expecting even a higher level horror movie like The ConjuringHereditary is playing a different game).  It is worth the time and the misery.  Hail Paemon.

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Kelly Mintzer hates dolls but loves movies about evil ventriloquist dummies. She is working her way through the “Sandman” series slowly but surely, and has been compared more than once to that iteration of Death. Holding down South Philly with a creative writing degree and the full series of “Hannibal”, she hasn’t seen her natural hair color in years.