A conversation that has been coming up a lot amongst my fellow cinephiles is “What do you define as scary?” The conversation spawns from people asking either “What’s the scariest movie you’ve seen” or “Is particular movie as scary as everyone says?” There was even a wonderful panel that touched on these subjects at the Phoenix ComicCon this past month. The expert consensus seems to agree that although a quality Jump-Scare can be delightfully startling, it’s the films that get under your skin and continue to haunt you for nights/weeks to come that are the scariest. A lingering sense of dread, the fear of a dark hallway, and the feeling that you just saw something move out of the corner of your eye are all symptoms of a quality scary movie. What scares us can change over time, but they all seem to go back to some core emotions. The inability to protect yourself or others you love from harm, the possibility of losing someone/something forever, and the inability to control something you can’t understand. A24’s latest unconventional horror film thrives on all of these.
Annie’s (Toni Collette) overbearing mother has just died. As the family of four returns from the funeral, she confesses to her husband Steve(Gabriel Byrne), “I don’t even feel sad.” He replies with a reassuring, “We all grieve in our own ways.” Indeed, they do. Annie throws herself into her work, miniature life recreations that are scheduled for a museum exhibition. Her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) turns to art as well but preferring a far more macabre aesthetic, fashioning together little dolls out of bits and bobbles and decapitated animals. Their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) internalizes his increasing pain and intensifies his angsty teenager-ing. It’s immediately clear this is a dysfunctional family, and as Annie reveals how rampantly mental health has run through her relatives, we began to wonder how much it has affected her and her children. As a father and husband, Steve is aware of the imbalance in his family and unsurely walks the tightrope between supporting his wife and enabling her.
Over the next 45 minutes, the movie slowly builds tension and plays on our expectations. Has Annie lost her mind? Is there really something in that corner when the lights go out? Did something weird just happen, or are we viewing things through an unreliable storyteller? Like Annie, and others in the story, we begin to question what is real. At first, her miniatures don’t seem to hold much relevance but soon we understand that they are her coping mechanism. By miniaturizing the things she can’t control she hopes to gain power over them. Like her husband, we wonder if this is a healthy outlet for her or a means of savoring the negative feelings she experiences. Even though the tension is continually building with the help of a pulsating soundtrack that is more felt than heard, there comes a point where we begin to wonder if anything is actually going to happen, or where the story is going. Then something happens that makes everything before it seem minimal. This is repeated a few times through the second half of the movie. An event, or reveal, or an image that makes the elements before it feel small by comparison. There is no respite from the dread.
In many ways, “Hereditary” shares a lot of elements with “The Witch”, another A24 film from 2015. Both have amazing cinematography, a family trying to hold together in the wake of personal loss, and both drag us down a path of madness. But the horror of “Hereditary” hits harder than “The Witch” did, perhaps because of it’s contemporary setting. Instead of a dark fairy tale, it’s more likely to possibly happen to our own family or someone we love.
There will be some who will leave the theatre saying “That wasn’t so scary!” Sure, maybe you didn’t jump out of your seat, or screech from an unexpected cat that popped on screen, but this movie WILL haunt you. It’s been over a week since I experienced it, and goosebumps still sprout on my skin as I recall key moments. Go see this movie, but don’t go alone.