I’ve always been a horror movie fan: from the classic monsters of Universal to the latest in indie slashers, I’ve always been fascinated by how horror filmmakers can elicit such powerful reactions from their audiences. Yet, there are two movies that I can wholeheartedly say I’ll forever regret watching: 1986’s The Fly and Ari Aster’s Hereditary.
David Cronenberg’s repulsive body horror classic starring Jeff Goldblum scarred me on a superficial level: eating meat became a daunting task for a week after I first watched The Fly. Hereditary, on the other hand, hurts way deeper: this is a movie that relentlessly attacks your emotions and abuses your fears. It is, without a doubt, a truly evil film that I would erase from my memory if I could. And I loved every second of it.
Fear in Familiar Places
There’s nothing groundbreaking about Hereditary’s story: the movie focuses on a family that falls victim to a demonic entity and must live with the constant torment of their haunting. It’s nothing we haven’t seen in many other horror films, the difference here is how the director, Ari Aster, takes these familiar horror elements and plays with the audience’s expectations.
In recent years, the phrase “subvert your expectations” has lost some of its meaning. Here, however, that’s exactly what Aster does every step of the way. There’s a clear point of no return in the movie, and to talk about it, we’ll need to delve into spoiler territory.
Not even halfway into the film, Charlie – the girl who seems destined to be the stereotypical “oddball who sees ghosts” character of the film (and also a central part of Hereditary’s marketing) – dies. And we’re not talking an ‘oops, she’s dead’ kind of death here, either. Charlie’s demise is one of those moments that will scar you long after you’re done watching Hereditary.
Picture this: a 16-year-old kid takes his 13-year-old sister to a party. The girl suffers an allergic reaction that forces the kid to drive her home as quickly as he can. They return home safe and sound: the only thing that doesn’t make it back home is Charlie’s head, which is left somewhere along the highway. The following morning, Annie, Charlie’s mother, finds her lifeless body still in the car. That’s the kind of messed-up reality that awaits those brave enough to watch this film.
Toni Collete plays Annie, and she’s one of the best actresses in a horror movie in the history of the genre. Her gut-wrenching reaction to finding her daughter’s body is one of the most disturbing moments in cinema. From then on, the movie turns into a full-on paranormal extravaganza, with nothing ever coming close to being as shocking as Charlie’s death.
There’s also the fact that Annie’s family has been plotting to sacrifice her children to a demon, with ever so small clues hidden throughout the film. All of this paranormal stuff is fine and all, but Hereditary is at its finest when it explores the common fears of a family, especially one that has lived through such a traumatic event.
Sure, demons and the occult can be great sources of inspiration for horror, but the unbridled sense of dread that comes from witnessing the Graham family collapsing in Hereditary is much more powerful than any kind of ghoul or ghost. Because it’s real, and we’ve all seen fragments of these horrors in our daily lives.
A New Horror Model
Why are people so attracted to horror movies in the first place? Films like Paranormal Activity are done on a shoestring budget, and they end up topping the box office. Why do we seek in movies that which in real life would be considered too macabre for comfort? Aster seems to question this paradox in the film’s opening.
Annie Graham, the matriarch of the Graham family, is an artist: she does detailed miniatures of all the things that surround her. At the beginning of Hereditary, we’re shown one such miniature, as the camera pans towards it; it’s as if Aster is trying to tell us that everything we’re seeing is just a model.
This is also true for most of the film’s more brutal scenes. Hereditary loves to represent these tense moments in long shots, contrary to what most cinematography experts would advise. This creates a feeling of abstraction in the viewer, but also one of intense dread, as every little detail in these tense moments is perfectly visible.
Hereditary might mark the beginning of a new era of horror movies. The genre itself had fallen into a somewhat stale point: year after year of zombies and invisible ghosts can only be seen so much before they become caricatures of themselves.
Some indie films that are also a great example of this new wave of horror are It Follows and It Comes at Night. These movies offer a different approach to horror movies as a genre; some people have come to call these films “slow-burn horror.” Hereditary is the perfect example of this: it takes a while for the movie to find its footing, but it never relents once it’s found its target.
I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts
One of the reasons why Hereditary works so well as a film and not just as a horror movie is because you can remove all of the supernatural elements from it, and you’d still get a haunting experience. Try removing the ghosts from Paranormal Activity and you get an hour and a half of people recording themselves while they sleep.
There’s a similar case in 2015’s The Witch, another of my all-time favorite horror movies. There’s (supposedly) an evil entity stalking in the woods, terrorizing a devout puritan family. I’ve always chosen to interpret the nearly unseen “Witch” in this movie as a manifestation of the fears of a religious family who’s been left to fend for themselves against a world that they don’t fully comprehend.
The movie outright exposes the conflict between the mother and the eldest daughter, painting the old woman as a mentally unstable person who’s on the verge of a breakdown. Would it be so inconceivable that such a person would hurt their own family under an overwhelmingly tense situation?
It seems like the new era of horror is one where films will reinvent their classic monsters; one where these creatures of the night will perfect their disguises, to the point where we won’t be sure if they exist at all. It’s an evolution of the classic folk tale: fables for the modern age.
If you’re looking for a film that hits hard and never relents, give Hereditary a chance. As a precaution, be sure to be in the right state of mind; just look at Charlie: there’s no need to lose your head over a film like this one.
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