Horror films are fickle things. The genre has been undeservedly judged as a lower art form, which has led to some perception that the only function horror can have is to produce cheap shocks and minor thrills. Every so often, however, a film comes along and completely challenges that notion. At their best, horror films expose the darkest sides of humanity and expose us to the things we fear the most, grounding the visceral journey as a revelatory experience that makes us reconsider the world around us. A good horror film explores the perilously thin line between what is human and inhuman, and if they’re particularly good, they show how we have the potential for both sides of the equation deep inside of us. Unfortunately, A24’s latest film, Hereditary, for all its positive press and hype, is not that kind of horror film.
As horror enters an increasingly modern place, entrenched in tired tropes and the necessity for financial success over artistic success, the number of films that manage to evoke a palpable sense of dread in the same way that the classic chillers from the 1970s and 1980s did remains astonishingly small. Usually film distributor A24 knows the secret to this success — they released the excellent film The Witch in 2016, which managed to utilize a stripped down aesthetic and old world landscape to demonstrate the very current horrors of when faith becomes misguided. Hereditary seeks a similar path. But where Aster goes awry is in the storytelling at large. While The Witch was purposeful in its slow-burn as it made its way towards a horrifically inevitable conclusion, Hereditary never feels cohesively assembled, shifting gears one too many times to satisfy completely. There are plenty of disturbing visuals and horrible dread, but it all amounts to nothing because the plot fizzles out due to a lack of genuine thematic substance by the end.
It’s not for a lack of trying. Aster has done his homework, drawing great inspiration from the works of Roman Polanski, whose films Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant can each be seen woven into Aster’s visuals and narrative. Polanski is certainly a master at his craft. The three aforementioned horror films are each masterworks of slow-building tension, deeply psychological and profoundly disturbing by the time the curtain closes. The horror is never readily apparent, but rather unfolds slowly and eventually occupies every conceivable space in the narrative. What aids Polanski is the way he’s able to really capture the uncanny. Everything feels normal but there’s something odd or off-putting about each occurrence or each person that eventually blossoms into genuine horror. That’s what makes those slow-burn horror films work. They manage to be unnerving because of subject matter, a sense of impending claustrophobia, or an atmosphere of otherness that suffocates.
Aster can’t quite manage that, mostly because of where Hereditary eventually goes in its story. The trailers have uniformly lied about the premise. Rather than being a ghost story about the influence of a deceased family member, Hereditary actually begins as a dark family drama about the grieving process and generational sins before it collapses into an ill-conceived occult story that undoes every ounce of thematic exploration that comes before it. For all the ways that Aster copies Polanski — and there are so, so many ways that he does this, from visual cues to the story’s actual ending — he misses the earlier director’s ability to keep the story as tightly wound as possible. Aster’s trying to do too much, so nothing quite gets its due.
The film starts out very strong. Immediately, the story sees Annie Graham (a revelatory Toni Collette) burying her mother, who died a shell of her former self. Annie is a survivor in many ways. Her family history is riddled with mental illness and neglect, to the point where burying Annie’s mother isn’t something to grieve, but to celebrate instead. But even from the beginning, there’s a seed planted that hints at what is hereditary in each family, and the film very unsubtly hints that Annie herself may suffer from a mental disorder. Each member of Annie’s family takes the tragedy differently. Whereas Annie feels very little, maybe even a sense of relief, her thirteen year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) was the apple of her grandma’s eye, and misses her deeply. Charlie voices concern to Annie that there is nobody left to take care of her, showing that she has no faith in her mother’s ability to raise them. That’s a sentiment echoed by Annie’s teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), who still harbors fear towards his mother after one of her sleepwalking incidents nearly ended his life. And then there is the father, Steven (an underused Gabriel Bryne), who is trying his best to maintain some sense of normalcy within the family.
In its first passages, Hereditary capably explores grief processes, presenting a strained family dynamic that is broken because of generational sin. Because Annie harbors fear from the way her own mother raised her, she’s become unintentionally unfit to raise Peter and Charlie. The strongest aspect of the film is the way that Annie’s descent is portrayed, a woman who starts the story on the fringe and eventually ends up deep within the abyss. Part of this is because of Collette’s brave, unflinching performance. Annie may be underdeveloped as a character because of Aster’s reluctance to explore the past in deep terms, but Collette finds the slack and capably carries it. She’s probably no better a mother than her own was to her. A particularly harrowing scene sees Annie admit to her son that she never wanted him in the first place, so much so that she attempted to deliberately miscarriage.
Tragedy drives the family apart, and it’s noble of Aster to show a side of grieving that doesn’t end well. The problem, as mentioned a moment ago, is that the characters are very undefined. Their relationships are frayed, but there’s no real sense of nuance to them. Aster himself wanted the film to operate as a family drama before spiraling into literal horror, but he’s forgotten to flesh out the characters and provide enough conflict to sustain his atmosphere of dread. With no sense of where the story is building to, a lot of Aster’s scare tactics just end up feeling hollow or incomplete. The film wants to be about grieving, but it doesn’t fully articulate what each of the Grahams are grieving or how they handle the multitude of tragedies presented to them over the course of the film.
Worse still, the film attempts to explore an idea of generational sin that ultimately feels inconsequential. While there’s no need to necessarily spoil the ending of the film, the entire piece’s tone and style shifts to an ending that doesn’t feel earned. Aster never peppers his narrative with enough clues or breadcrumbs that would logically lead us to such a conclusion. Everything hinges on large amounts of exposition when Aster could have utilized a stronger sense of mystery that would’ve helped to further drive the characters away. In the end, the story comments that what is hereditary is often the sins of the father or mother, but that seems like such an opaque statement that it bears no real meaning. In some ways, it’s also the film trying to justify its use of mental illness, and while that would normally feel like it was in poor taste, it’s so purposeless that it never matters.
How about the scares? Is Hereditary as frightening as all those adverts make it out to be? Yes and no. The trouble is that what is scary is entirely subjective. As a fan of horror films, there are very few things that can worm their way under my skin by this point. Throughout Hereditary‘s overlong runtime, I confess to never being scared once. It’s not necessarily the kind of horror film that thrives off cold shocks and cheap thrills, but rather builds a steadily intoxicating atmosphere that threatens to suffocate. Even there, I never felt like Hereditary was truly taking me to a disturbing place. It’s another product of the film’s underdeveloped themes and narrative. Aster deploys an array of truly disturbing images (one particular decapitation may haunt squeamish audience members for a good while), and his restraint is appreciated, but it’s just never truly scary because all of those images and shocks mean nothing. Or at least, they don’t quite succeed in the ways that Aster had intended.
If Hereditary‘s narrative and ultimate execution are less than cohesive, it would be hard to argue that it’s not an admirable effort. For a first-time director, Aster is remarkably confident, and to even attempt to go to the places the film does in a debut is auspicious enough. What helps is the way he maintains a constant handle on the film’s visuals. The camerawork is incredibly fluid, and the slick editing helps to create some truly disorienting and kinetic shots that work at creating a palpable atmosphere. On a production design level, the house is often portrayed like a miniature set, the kind that Annie works on as her way of maintaining some semblance of control. We are spying on the events that are transpiring within this claustrophobic space, and Aster wisely utilizes this visual angle throughout the story. Then there is Colin Stetson’s insidiously unnerving score, perhaps the film’s best trick when it comes to finding ways to unsettle the audience.
Horror films are fickle things. They’re very intentional and taut, purposeful in their imagery and calculated in their storytelling. Perhaps Hereditary never quite reaches those heights because Ari Aster himself has confessed to not writing or staging the film as horror before the final act. It explains the disconnect. As for Aster, while he’s not a strong writer, there’s plenty of promise in his chilly direction. Given what it’s about, Hereditary should’ve worked well as a horror film. There’s something frightening about the grief process that makes it very mineable source material. Grief, after all, maybe be a shared experience, but it never looks the same from one person to the next. Exploring that uncomfortable depth in a family setting, one that’s already fractured, is horrifying just because of how relatable it is. Maybe if Hereditary had left out the cheap, uncooked occult scares and supernatural undertones and instead focused on fraying psyches and failed coping mechanisms, it may have truly been the genre standout that many are hailing it to be.