When did audiences and critics suddenly become so divided in their taste for horror movies? It probably isn’t exactly a new phenomenon but it seems like there’s been a certain role reversal. It used to be that critics looked down on horror movies in general and wrote snobby reviews of the likes of The Thing and it would be left up to audiences to recognize the skill on display and build its legacy. Obviously there would be certain movies like The Exorcist or The Silence of the Lambs that would be so good they would win over critics as well as audiences, but for the most part mainstream movie critics were far less forgiving of the genre than the public. That’s still the case to some extent given that there are plenty of horror movies of the Ouija variety that the public laps up despite critical apathy, but there’s been an odd trend recently of “arty” horror movies that critics have loved but which audiences have angrily rejected. The most prominent example of this was probably Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which was only kind of a horror movie but audiences were certainly expecting it to be one and they were not too happy with what they got. Something similar played out with last year’s It Comes at Night and with less widely seen films like The Witch and The Babadook. It’s a pretty disturbing trend, in part because it suggest that audience have really closed their minds to what a horror movie can and should be, but it is good to see smart movies like this getting recognition and the latest movie that seems to have fit this trend is the new film Hereditary, which received incredibly strong reviews on the festival circuit but seems to be confounding mainstream audiences.
The film opens with the text of an obituary of an old woman named Ellen and transitions to her funeral where her daughter Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is conflicted about how to feel. Her mother had been mentally ill throughout her life and the two fought often and went through periods of estrangement. Annie’s kids aren’t quite sure what to think about the death of their grandmother either. The older son Peter (Alex Wolff) had not spent much time with Ellen as Annie was estranged from her when he was young but her younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) did spend time with her but generally has a rather cold demeanor and doesn’t reveal much in the way of her emotions. In the days after Ellen’s death Annie finds herself seeing some odd things that her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) dismisses as her mind playing tricks on her but Annie still finds herself secretly going to support groups for grief where she meets a woman named Joan (Anne Dowd) who tries to support her and begins introducing her to alternative coping mechanisms. However, as Charlie begins acting increasingly strangely and other odd things keep happening and it becomes clear that something far more sinister than mere grief is going on here.
Hereditary could be said to be a rather extreme example of the many ways not to handle grief and family strife. Much of what makes the film special is the way that the family at its center starts to break down and turn against one another as things grow increasingly painful for everyone involved and we see different coping mechanisms out of each of the main family members. The mother desperately searches for answers and becomes prone to anger, the son more or less cocoons himself away and falls into a sort of depressive stupor, and the father tries to just move on and ends up having to act as a sort of mediator between all parties involved. I wouldn’t exactly say that this rings “true” exactly given all the horror trappings that adds a new dimension to everything, but it does sort of feel like an extreme version of dynamics that would exist in a similar if less fantastical scenario. As such this requires more out of its actors than the typical horror movie and much of the cast delivers. Gabriel Byrne does a good job of conveying the desperation of a guy who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a truly messed up dynamic and Alex Wolff does a pretty good job of making his character’s utter confusion palpable. But the true standout here is almost certainly Toni Collette who brings to life a character who is in an almost constant state of mental breakdown because of an accumulation of years of confusion and repressed memories and also the desperation of her current situation. Were this a more standard family drama in the Ordinary People vein she would be a shoe in for an academy award for this performance.
This focus on mental breakdown in a familial situation draws some comparison to another recent “arty” horror movie, The Babadook. I would say that in general Hereditary is a scarier and more hard hitting horror movie than The Babadook but it lacks the ambiguity of that movie and other clear inspirations like Rosemary’s Baby. I think the movie wants you to sort of be unclear, at least for a little while, as to whether or not there’s truly something supernatural going on or whether Toni Collette’s character is letting her paranoia and insecurities get the best of her, or at least that’s a card I wish it had wanted to play but it shows you things early on that are plainly supernatural and in doing so it sort of discards that possibility early on. In general if I have a problem with the movie it’s that it is perhaps trying to be a few too many different kind of horror movies at once. At times it feels a bit like a ghost story of the Paranormal Activity variety and it isn’t above going for a jump scare here and there, at times it feels like an occult/witchcraft movie along the lines of The Exorcist or The Witch, and at times it wants to be more of a psychological thriller along the lines of The Babadook and the weight of trying to be so many things at once sort of prevents it from being everything it could potentially be. I think dropping some of the elements that fake towards it being a haunting movie and letting it be more of a slow burn at the beginning would have been to its benefit and I also don’t exactly know that it lays out the rules of its horror universe as clearly as I would have like (I was never exactly clear how the rules of possession are supposed to work in it), though of course there is probably a decent argument to be made that a more mysterious approach would was the right one. Whatever it’s imperfections that may or may not preclude it from the pantheon of horror masterpieces, this is plainly a cut above most of the horror movies that are likely to be in theaters at a given moment and is well worth seeing if you’ve got the stomach for a lot onscreen trauma.
**** out of Five