Well, it’s been almost three months since its release, and the battle over A24‘s Hereditary is warming up like a pit of freshly brewed brimstone. Like any piece of truly provocative entertainment, the film makes you take a side.
You love it, you hate it, you didn’t understand it… Anyway you cut it, you’re forced to make a choice, which is something horror has been making audiences do for a century… But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The biggest news in this ragged little film’s rise to glory is perhaps how many people went to see it. The modestly budgeted piece, which was cranked out for $10 million last year, had about an $80 million gross at the worldwide box office so far, making it A24’s most profitable film venture ever.
The scrappy production house, who put both feet in the water with The VVitch in 2016, has found new levels of success with what they and others have been touting as “art house horror,“ which has been credited as raising the bar on a genre supposedly caught in an audience pandering loop of fake blood and rubber masks.
I am forced here to give a literary sigh at that nonsense, but again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
For those who have yet to see Ari Aster’s film, the following contains a medium number of spoilers.
To the film at hand: Hereditary cast us down in an isolated, suburban stretch of Colorado at the funeral of main character Annie Graham‘s (the masterful Toni Collette) mother. From the opening shot, it’s clear there was a strained, frosty relationship between mother and daughter. It’s also clear by the repetition of occult symbolism in the foreground and background that dear old mom was a high-ranking witch. But before you can say “Am I Evil?,“ Collette’s Graham is thrust into another life-changing event as her youngest child (Milly Shapiro) is accidentally killed by her oldest child (Alex Wolff).
From there, the film takes a dramatic turn that would have made an admirable film all on its own. As Annie Graham, Collette and her stoically suffering husband (played with wonderful believability by film vet Gabriel Byrne) expose the unpleasant underbelly of grief, guilt, and parental failure. How does a family continue as a family when one child is responsible for the death of the other? Heredity explores some heady subject matters in an unflinching manner that is worthy of Academy Award-level recognition (Ordinary People never did it like this, folks).
But you may be saying, “Hey, I thought this was a supernatural horror flick?” Well, yes, you’re right… And, somehow, the film gets back to that despite the inherent pathos of the middle portion.
The next wave comes when Annie meets a fellow grieving parent at a support group (Ann Dowd). This sounds all nice and safe and supportive – until this same friend turns her on to communicating with the dead. Then, all hell breaks loose and, trust me, I’m not exaggerating.
The third act of the film is an all-out dive into looney-ville with dug up corpses, dreams of self-immolation, fireplace explosions, and the most disturbing use of piano wire in film history (See Suspiria 1977 🙂 — ED).
Friends, I’ve been watching, reading, and writing about this stuff for decades now, and the attic scene at the end of the film kept my mind at work for several nights wondering if director Ari Aster took it too far. So, yeh, anyone who can make me wonder if you’ve gone too Lars von Trier, congrats (though von Trier would have given a left arm to have AntiChrist display this much emotional impact) …
The ending, naturally, is what makes the film divisive. To many, Aster seemingly has set up one kind of horror film in the narrative only to jump out and show you he was making another kind of horror film all along. The M. Night Shyamalan effect has always left a bad taste in many filmgoers’ mouths and turned out to be a double-edged sword in that former critical darling’s career. Ari Aster as screenwriter and director walks that narrow line here, almost consciously setting up the majority of the film as a misdirection on an unsuspecting audience.
If you walked out of Hereditary feeling duped or cheated, well, I understand your pain. Speaking for myself, all the subtext and background images and obscure dialogue were setting up something I could see that wasn’t being played out in the narrative. And maybe asking your audience to recognize the positioning and meaning of the Tarot and to be versed in the Dictionary of Occult Symbols might be a wee bit ambitious. However, ambition is an admirable trait in any film or filmmaker (see my review of The Theta Girl), and Hereditary has all the ambition anyone would ever want.
My larger gripe is this: How did no one at A24 recognize that the ending of Hereditary visually was almost scene for scene a mirror of The VVitch? I mean, I almost expected Anya Taylor-Joy to be standing in the treehouse at the end. Is A24 gonna end all of their horror movies this way? Are we looking at an indie film foundation for a cinematic universe? One can only wonder…
To summarize, kudos to Aster and A24 for daring to challenge the audience to pay attention to the process. It’s always nice to be respected as a thinking filmgoer. However, to return to my original gripe, this ain’t a new phenomenon we’re seeing here. Horror filmmakers back to the Silent Age have been forcing analysis and interpretation from their viewing audiences.
Aster is just one in a long line who has been challenging the paradigm that horror is a “turn off your brain and jump” genre. Time doesn’t permit a real discussion of how much horror films have turned cinema inward. Freaks was maybe the most political film of 1930’s. The Shining is more allegorical than a Hemingway novel. And hell, who knew everything you needed to know about how the world works would come from a film starring “Rowdy“ Roddy Piper?
So, if someone tells you that Hereditary is the start of a trend in horror, kick them where it counts for me, please? It’s about 10th on a list of smart horror films since just last year… Also, beat down their stupid film critic friend who says, “Horror films are starting to get noticed at the box office.” That’s way overdue too.
In fact, just stop talking to people that dumb. There’s no saving anyone who is that shortsighted. They’re the kind of tools that end up falling down during the chase scene of a slasher flick right when it looks like everyone is going to make it to the front door. Let them leave a seat at the movies for someone with half a clue.