Editor’s note: I stated a year ago that this film was not quite an instant classic. That claim is stupid, please disregard.
This film is…oh boy…an experience to say the least.
Hereditary is the most shocking, bewildering, bewitching, dumbfounding horror film I have seen in quite a long time- potentially ever. It has some of the most incredibly disturbing imagery, tone and score that I have ever seen, and it is one of the greatest horror films I have seen in my entire life. However, there is one bit of convention in the film that keeps it from becoming an instant classic.
The execution of this film is sublime. Every single way in which this film can deliver its message to the audience is executed to near perfection, and they all contribute to an incredibly disturbing image. The visuals are often stark and no-nonsense; there is not a bunch of visual flair going on to distract you or to make you think that there is more going on than there actually is. No shaky-cam to create a confusing perspective and no jump scares to create phony scares and adrenaline. This film creates effective visuals through creative camera work and effective use of long shots. The score of this film in many sequences is this pulsing beat which is reminiscent of a heartbeat. This driving beat coupled with the visuals and a very deliberate pacing to the film create a near constant anxiousness for the audience. At any moment something horrible could happen, and when that horrible thing comes, it is going to be a real doozy.
This film does not give a damn about holding the audiences hand and making things easy for them. There is a death in the early part of the film that is completely horrific, sudden and deeply distressing. The aftermath is even more difficult to handle as the realization of it begins to spread to others and a brief glimpse of the aftermath is provided to the audience. This sets the tone fairly early on that this film is going to do everything it can to leave a lasting and repulsive image in the audience’s head without resorting to cheap gross-out imagery. From there we are subjected to increasingly unsettling events and images that compound on one another until the fil has finished and there is nothing left to do but to sit and stare in awe of what you have just witnessed.
Toni Collette delivers a magnificent performance as the matriarch of this family which finds itself being tortured with tragedy after tragedy.
Some spoilers follow
There was an extended period of time when I could not even speak upon finishing this film. It was so unbelievable and indescribable that I had a very difficult time actually processing what I just spent the past two hours watching. The constant build-up paid off in the form of a haunting and otherworldly finale that left me with nothing to do but to place my hands upon my head, open my mouth and sit there is complete shock for a few minutes as the credits rolled. While driving back home, I spent much of the ride trying to figure out what the hell had just happened. But then it happened; I was finally able to figure out what happened in only a few words, and the weakness of the film dawned on me at the same time. There is a lot of Rosemary’s Baby in this film.
As soon as I made this realization, I was able to figure out what this film lacked in order to be the sort of instant classic that I had the potential to be. It lacks a concept that is original or abstract enough to match up to its stellar execution. When some time passes, the audience will be able to figure out what the film was actually about, and the ability to state the reasoning behind the events of the film with one very simple, if blunt, sentence belittles the final impact of the film. Ultimately, this film is about a group of demon worshipers torment some poor family to bring their silly deity back to life. As noted in the review for Annabelle: Creation, once the veil is pulled back, and the mystery is lost, much of the horror is lost with it. Except that Hereditary only reveals it at the very end, and it also is an actual crafted film and not a cheap piece of trash.
For much of the film, it is teased that the source of everything that is happening to the family is due to mental illness that is passed down from parent to child, and in this case, mother to child. After all, just look to the name of the film for the first clue: hereditary. The mother reveals while grieving the loss of her elderly mother that there is a history of mental illness in her family. Further, it is revealed that she has her own history with sleepwalking and potentially some narcolepsy which begin to affect how she sees the world. For much of the film, it appeared that this was the direction that Hereditary was going to take before it begins to be revealed that all the trauma is due to the actions of a bizarre satanic cult. Had the film decided to go with mental illness and obfuscating what is and what is not real could have been a more novel approach with a more interesting conclusion. Instead what we got was the plans of the cult playing out and unfortunately being explained to us. It is still and incredible watch, and a completely enthralling experience, but ultimately somewhat easily explained due to the films decision to venture into the supernatural.
Even with that bit of convention tied to the core of the film, it is still delivered in such a way that it feels new, original and horrific. And that is ultimately the most important aspect of the film. It is completely wiggy. It is one of the most memorable and distinct film experiences that I have ever had, and it presented images to me that will stick in my brain like a cancer for a very long time. It is one of the most well executed horror films that I have ever seen, and it should stand out as an exemplary example of the genre for a long time.