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Sometimes a film can be so good it’s impossible to watch.
I recently had this experience when I sat down for 2018’s Hereditary, a supernatural horror film that has been getting rave reviews since it was released. A slow-paced, claustrophobic movie set in a forest-choked town, Hereditary begins with the funeral of an older woman named Ellen: grandmother of the Graham family and mother to her estranged, now-adult daughter Annie.
Annie has been on bad terms with her mother for many years. During a forced, awkward eulogy, she hints at the fact that Ellen was a paranoid, bitter woman whose mental illness was taken out on her children. After the funeral, strange events begin to happen in the family home. When tragedy strikes a second time, Annie becomes convinced their house is haunted.
This is as much as I can say about Hereditary without diving into the spoilers. On the surface it seems like a standard horror movie, but by the five-minute mark it becomes glaringly obvious that Hereditary is anything but. Very few horror movies have lingered with me this strongly, and in this sense Hereditary is the spiritual and creative successor to It Follows. Both films have the distinction of being superbly crafted examples of their genre, and flawless in their execution. Unfortunately, because they’re so good, they really scary. Too scary.
Hereditary left me shaken in a bad way, and I almost couldn’t finish watching the film.
I’m struggling to talk about Hereditary in a way that doesn’t spoil the entire thing, especially when I want to talk about everything all at once.
The sound design is deeply unsettling from start to finish, and each shot is purposely framed to cause a nauseating level of tension. Again and again, we’re presented with long, lingering scenes where you’re convinced that something horrifying will casually stroll out of a darkened hallway when you least expect it. The side-effect of this is being on the edge of your seat for an hour and a half as you try to calm down your overwhelming anxiety.
All the actors in this film did an amazing job. The characters were fully fleshed out and deeply flawed, and the movie spent a lot of time building up the audience’s empathy with people who are otherwise hard to empathize with. This made the dangers these characters were facing particularly fraught, and I was terrified something would happen to them. I felt genuinely ill whenever it did.
One thing that really stands out about this movie is how sensitive it is when it comes to its depiction of mental illness and trauma. I’m often critical of how horror films use people who struggle with depression as a way to get across a ham-fisted message about not trusting the “Other.” Not so here.
Hereditary is insightful in how it shows the little ways in which mental illness can affect your life, and how this illness can be exacerbated by external circumstances like a death in the family. Nor does the film fetishize mental illness as something to be viewed voyeuristically, and it doesn’t make the characters who suffer from these ailments into saints worthy of “redemption.” They’re just human.
Indeed, you could make a strong case that the real horror in Hereditary is not its supernatural elements, but the lingering fear of an unwell parent. Specifically, the fear of a parent who worries that they’ll pass their mental illness onto their child. The subtext of this and how it was handled brought me to tears at parts. The director, Ari Aster, has stated in an interview with IndieWire from where he drew inspiration:
Aster wriggles away from any inquiries about the plot’s personal origins. “I don’t feel comfortable being explicit about it,” he said, repeating a line that has become a mantra in interviews. “It’s easier for me not to go into detail. I was more pulling from feelings than experiences.”
Aster may not be comfortable going into detail, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s done a phenomenal job with this story.
While this film was visually gorgeous and a treat for the senses, it was far too scary to enjoy.
Hereditary became “too real” through the vehicle of family trauma, and when that veneer of the fantastical is stripped away from a horror film—when you are watching events that genuinely feel like they could happen to you—then the dividing line between fiction and reality falls apart. There’s one scene in Hereditary after the second tragedy strikes that will genuinely haunt me for ages.
Upon its release, Hereditary was overwhelmingly praised by critics, and since then it has continued to gain admiration. It’s director has a new horror film coming out in July 2019 called Midsommar. You can check out the trailer above.