The Following Review Contains Some Spoilers. Avoid if you have not seen Hereditary or wish to avoid spoilers.
This is a controversial opinion: I didn’t like Hereditary. As a big fan of smart and original horror films, the macabre flick that hit cinemas in mid-June has been on my list of must-see Summer films since the buzz surrounding it began. And there has been a lot of buzz. It has a very respectable 89% of positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, The Sundance Film Festival called it ‘The Scariest Horror Movie Ever’ and critics queued up to lavish it with praise. The Vulture’s David Edelstein described it as making the viewer ‘see things you can never unsee and feel pain you can never un-feel’, whilst The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it a ‘brilliant fear machine.’ So it was perhaps no wonder that my expectations were sky-high.
The premise is a very solid one. When the stony and mysterious matriarch, 78-year-old Ellen Taper Leigh passes away, she leaves a chilling legacy behind in the form of an unidentified hereditary illness (I guess the clue is in the title!) Her death leaves her family devastated, but probably not in the way you would expect. You see, Leigh was far from a lovable Betty White figure – we get the impression that her passing is more of a relief than a source of bereavement. She leaves behind her daughter, Annie Graham, played by the ever-sensational Toni Collette, and her troubled grandchildren Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff). Shapiro is wonderfully creepy as Grandma’s favourite – when we see her carefully cutting off a pigeon’s head as though she is merely crafting at school and staring statue-like into the camera, it quickly becomes clear that we’ve got a child villain to rival even The Omen’s Damien. It’s a pity, therefore that Shapiro is underused, as is her fiendish accomplice, Grandma Taper Lee, and although director Ari Aster has very good reasons for this, the result is that it shifts Hereditary from spine-chilling extravaganza to occasionally farcical.
That is not to say that Hereditary does not have some good moments – it’s a cleverly crafted film, with everything from Charlie’s creepy decapitation of the pigeon, to the inscription of Paimon’s symbol on the phone post that kills Charlie, all pointing towards Hereditary’s grizzly conclusion. Charlie’s decpitation which occurs less than an hour into the film has become the most talked about scene in the movie and for good reason. It’s director Ari Aster’s favourite and the whole sequence is simultaneously sickening, brutal and unnervingly real. After going to a party with her pot-loving brother, Charlie has an allergic reaction to chocolate cake containing nuts. Whilst her frantic brother attempts to drive her to the hospital, Charlie sticks her head out of the window to try and gasp for air, before being accidentally decapitated by a phone post. Rather than calling the ambulance or his parents, a shell-shocked Peter simply drives home and goes to bed, leaving his parents to discover their daughter’s horrific death the next morning. The sequence switches between close-ups of Peter’s eyes, Collette’s wailing and finally the image of Charlie’s bloodied head surrounded by insects. Hereditary certainly isn’t afraid to be shocking or ugly – and here it works to brilliant effect. But the rest of the film just cannot sustain this. You do not need to be a first-class film critic to know that Hereditary is intended to be artistic, innovative and, much like Darren Aronovsky’s Mother!, sometimes hideously over-the-top. To read it as a metaphor of and a meditation on the pernicious and often insidious impact that mental health conditions can have on entire families is a smart and compelling idea. All these ideas can be appreciated and admired, without necessarily approving of the way they were executed (pardon the pun!)
I’d also venture that disliking or feeling indifferent towards Hereditary is not a sign that mass culture has infected our ability to appreciate a well-made film. Although many modern audiences undoubtedly lap up the likes of the Saw franchise and its butcher-circus, having never been a fan of gore for the sake of gore, I don’t think Hereditary’s rejection of mainstream horror tropes was what made me dislike it. After all, the film contains plenty of bloody-violence – sometimes well done, as in the aforementioned scene, but sometimes it seemed it was playing a little too much on its ability to shock and show macabre images that other films dare not. The problem at the heart of Hereditary, for me, is that whilst it draws heavily on some of the best horror films of all time – Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist have been two popular comparisons – it fails to leave its audience in awe. It ventures towards an exploration of the paranoia and neuroses that is part of everyday living, but unlike Rosemary’s Baby it fails to deliver the final, gut-wrenching pay-off that could have rendered it comparable to such classics.