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Non-Review Review: Hereditary

Perhaps what is most striking about Hereditary is how all the comparisons to The Exorcist seem off base.

To be fair, every movie deserves to be judged on its own terms unless it expressly demands otherwise, whether through a preexisting relationship or an inviting homage. Nevertheless, The Exorcist has been a touchstone for Hereditary in the run-up to the film’s release, a critical cliché employed to underscore just how effective Hereditary is. Rolling Stone has pitched the film as “this generation’s The Exorcist.” TimeOut described it as “a new generation’s The Exorcist.” Titlemag acknowledged the use of such critical shorthand.

Something to chew over.

It’s easy to see why this comparison has been made. The Exorcist is public short-hand for scary, a famously controversial film that shocked audiences upon release and which many members of the current generation first heard discussed in hushed tones. More than that, there’s significant thematic overlaps between Hereditary and The Exorcist, with both films serving as unsettling explorations of a tightly-knit family dynamic that use supernatural horror as prism through which these dynamics might be interrogated.

However, there is a major tonal difference between Hereditary and The Exorcist. In many ways, The Exorcist represents a very broad and populist strand of seventies horror, with an accessible central narrative that plays off easily understood fears in a very direct manner. The Exorcist was a cultural phenomenon, earning almost two hundred million dollars at the United States box office on initial release, and becoming a touchstone for an entire generation of horror fans. It is a movie that has inspired parodies and references, which can be used casually as shorthand with non-cinephile audiences.

Putting the ‘fun’ in ‘funeral.’

Hereditary is a very different sort of beast. Hereditary is not a descendant of that sort of broad crowd-pleasing horror spectacle. The narrative is dense and layer, its symbolism abstract and its storytelling often allegorical. Hereditary is full of ambiguities and lacunas, with tension simmering beneath the surface before exploding dramatically towards the climax. If Hereditary is a descendant of sixties and seventies horrors, it is a closer relation of more abstract nightmares like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

This is perhaps the most interesting thing about the film, and one which perhaps goes a long way towards explaining some of the more contradictory aspects of its theatrical release.

Do look now.

Much digital ink has been spilled about the gulf that exists between the critical response to Hereditary and the audience reaction to the film. Critics have been raving about Hereditary since its festival premieres, while audiences have been a bit more reticent in their praise. It is tempting to over-emphasise this divide, particularly since Hereditary is a box office success by any measure and is certain to make back its budget. But this space provides an interesting point of discussion of Hereditary.

Modern popular culture is to a large extent driven by nostalgia; there is a debate about to what extent that has always been true, but a look at the major contemporary cinematic releases affirms the power of nostalgia as a cultural force. Solo: A Star Wars Story. Ocean’s 8. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. There is an emphasis to exaggerate the pervasiveness of remakes and sequels in contemporary culture, overlooking the fact that there are simply more movies being produced in general and that films like Annihilation, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water all exist.

Mirror, mirror.

As a genre, horror frequently finds itself trapped between the past and the future. Movies like Get Out provide vital prisms through which audiences might interrogate contemporary culture, but even the genre’s advances are often coded in iconography of the past; Scream might have deconstructed slasher movies, but it did so by existing in part as an homage to them. This is to say nothing of the abundance of cheap remakes, sequels and reboots in the genre. The countless sequels to movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th.

Inevitably, that nostalgia reflects itself in other more complicated manners. Recent pop culture seems particularly engaged with the seventies, as demonstrated by movies like The Nice Guys and television shows like The Deuce. It’s interesting to speculate on why that might be – echoes of Watergate in contemporary politics, political disillusion in the wake of an exhausting and seemingly unending war, a reflexive extension of nineties nostalgia that extends back to nostalgia for nineties nostalgia for the seventies. Nevertheless, popular culture is reconnecting with the seventies.

A model daughter.

Given the general sense of dread and anxiety permeating popular culture, it makes sense that at least some of this nostalgia should seep into the horror genre. Contemporary horror cinema seems very much informed by the genre’s history, particularly the legacy of the seventies. This is most obvious in the work of James Wan, who has arguably constructed modern Hollywood’s second successful shared universe with The Conjuring, which is very consciously drawing on the tone and iconography of populist mainstream seventies horrors like The Amityville Horror.

Hereditary is similarly shaded with nostalgia, albeit for a more niche type of horror. Hereditary is a film that is more informed by the work of directors like Nicolas Roeg and Roman Polanski than that of William Friedkin or Stuart Rosenberg. In fact, writer and director Ari Aster wears his influences on his sleeve. As the ominous and creepy young child Charlie, Milly Shapiro spends most of the film wandering around in an oversized orange jumper, recalling the dwarf in the red rain jacket from Don’t Look Now. There are the same suggestions of conspiracy and deception that shaded Rosemary’s Baby.

Orange ya glad to see an homage to more prestigious seventies horror?

Hereditary is just as much a nostalgia-driven horror piece as The Conjuring, except that it aspires towards a more artful and prestigious template. As such, it is very easy to see why audiences had a very different reaction to Hereditary than critics did. Hereditary is precisely designed to tickle a cinephile’s nostalgia receptors more than those of a casual horror fan’s, drawing from a more niche frame of reference. There is nothing wrong with that, to be clear. They are two sides of the same coin, with both Hereditary and The Conjuring reflecting two different sides of seventies horror.

At the same time, Hereditary is somewhat undermined and undercut by this nostalgia. It is probably counter-intuitive (and more than a little unfair) to describe Hereditary as “predictable”, but the film is surprisingly conventional once the audience figures out the rules by which it is playing. At several points in the narrative, particularly once the movie gets out of its first act, it is easy enough to work out the direction in which the movie is going. Hereditary frequently runs the risk of devolving into a laundry list of the clichés that the viewer expects from a more up-market horror.

The discussion heats up.

Part of this is largely down to the fact that a lot of the surrealism and abstraction in Hereditary never feel especially well-earned. Even if these plot beats are disguised through a certain detached artfulness, Hereditary follows a very conventional and well-worn path. It occasionally feels like the care and craft poured into the film exists to distract from a plot that could easily have been lifted from a bottom-shelf horror like Devil’s Due. These familiar elements have just been flavoured with selections from the big book of abstract horror movie clichés.

(There is minimal verbal exposition in the film until the climax, because actually articulating the premise of the movie would seem trashy. However, there are handy books with very relevant underlined passages, because allowing the audience to read exposition makes it seem like a more active process than simply having a character speak it out loud. Similarly, the film makes a point to explain away the sort of contrivances that lesser horrors embrace as plotting necessities, but in doing so renders its own plot as absurd as any of those lesser horrors.)

Family plot.

To be fair, Hereditary does contain a few surprises. In particular, there’s a genuinely horrifying beat in the late first act that cleverly plays with audience expectations, signalling a significant shift in the kind of story that Hereditary is telling. However, the boldness of this move (and it is a staggeringly and aggressively bold move) is undercut by the ineffectiveness of the transition that Hereditary makes. The development suggests that the movie will dynamically change course, but instead it only really shifts lanes.

This familiarity undercuts a lot of the potential effectiveness of the horror. Once it becomes clear what Hereditary is doing, the manner in which it is doing it becomes a lot less effective. Much like comedy, horror is inherently subjective. It is hard to quantifiably measure how “scary” a film is, accepting that individuals have different thresholds and tastes. Nevertheless, Hereditary is a movie that relies more on a mounting sense of dread than the sort of jump scares that define movies like The Conjuring. This sense of dread is more artful, but it’s also more delicate.

A mother figure.

Hereditary is undoubtedly a very well-made film. The movie is incredibly skilful in its construction, packed with rich imagery that suggests its unlying horror. The film is an exploration of the very notion of families, from the tensions that simmer beneath the surface to the complicated relationships that exist between parents and children. It is a harrowing and unsettling exploration of the frustrating dynamics at play beneath seemingly idyllic exteriors, at the unexpected inheritances that children receive from their parents – whether in terms of biology, values, culture or even just expectations.

The film returns time and again to the miniature models created by Annie, the matriarch of the Graham family. Annie draws from her own surroundings and history, creating tiny snapshots of important family moments. The film suggests these models are perhaps an attempt by Annie to exercise some control over a turbulent family life, to render her own experiences as something manageable and understandable. They provide a prism through which Annie can express fears and anxieties that she would never dare to speak out loud. (Annie also confesses to sleep walking, suggesting other subconscious struggles.)

Scaling those issues.

These models are more than just a means of self-expression for Annie. They serve as a miniature statement of purpose for the film itself. In narrative terms, these models provide effective and efficient exposition about the details of the rot that has set in at the root of the family tree without needing to disrupt the narrative for clumsy plot-driving dialogue. In terms of mood, the film’s subtext is most beautifully evoked in a subtle and graceful pan down a grotesque sculpture that suggests a modern family home built atop the decaying a decrepit ruins of other family homes buried beneath the ground.

Hereditary understands the power of this imagery, with director Ari Aster proving just as skilful a creative as his subject. One of the movie’s opening shots, one that very immediately establishes mood, is a push into one of these scale models that suggests a level of recursion; a scale model becomes the real thing through skilful camera work and seamless editing. It underscores the idea that the characters in this film are all living within the confines of a world bounded by the choices of their ancestors, that family is perhaps an elaborate cage constructed in incredible detail.

All fired up.

This comparison is a double-edged sword, with Hereditary occasionally seeming a little too artful in its construction, a little too sterile and a little too meticulous. There is something uncanny in the way that the film is put together, and not quite in the style of the seventies horror movies that Hereditary so longingly evokes. The film occasionally seems a little too ornate for its own good, a little too arch. (It could reasonably be argued that the casting of Gabriel Byrne in a key supporting role is an example of extremely wry wordplay, given how the film develops.)

However, Hereditary benefits from the lead performance of Toni Collette as Annie, who breathes life into the movie as a woman who finds herself struggling to process family tragedy. Collette’s performance is raw and emotional, nuanced and compelling. Annie is a fascinating lead, a woman who seems to be suffocating in the calm and disciplined surroundings of the family home. “I can’t accept and I can’t forgive because nobody in this family admits what they’ve done,” she rages at one point in the narrative.

Toni! Toni! Toni?

As the film builds to its climax, Collette is the glue that holds the film together, the centre of narrative gravity. However, the film suffers slightly once it actually reaches the climax, as it becomes quite clear that Annie is not the focal point of the story that Hereditary is actually telling. In the final act, there is a sudden and dynamic shift in perspective that fits very comfortably with the kind of story that Hereditary is telling, but which undercuts a lot of emotional momentum that carries the movie towards that point.

Hereditary is a very carefully and very precisely constructed film, one crafted with considerable care and attention to detail. It is beautiful to look at, and  engaging to think about. However, there is something precious and ornate about it. For a horror movie, there’s precious little blood flowing through it.

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