Hereditary changed me. I’m serious.
Let me explain first of all that I am somewhat immune to mainstream horror. I haven’t had a mainstream horror film get under my skin since The Ring (and I was only 17 at the time, and a wimp, so it wasn’t really a grand feat).
Even most “underground” horror films don’t particularly shock me. My resume is considerable, ranging from classic gross-out theater, like Dead Alive to the majestic macabre of the surreal in Begotten. I’ve seen A Serbian Film twice. I don’t know why.
As a horror maven, I’m always looking for something new. I want that feeling of unease in my horror films, that sensation that can seep into the organs and only be removed with time and pressure. Eeriness is what permeates me. Shock, in large doses, is cheap.
Hereditary broke the shield for me. The film serves as an all-encompassing nightmare, a experience that shatters the fourth wall and forces the audience to be involved with trauma. There’s a constant sense of unease, the feeling that something terrible is about to happen. And it does. And it just keeps happening.
If you don’t know the story, watch the trailer. For those who want the Coles Notes version, here we go: it’s about a family coping with grief. That’s all I’m going to tell you – you can look up the rest if you’re desperate. The way that the characters deal with grief is highly visceral before verging on the allegorical. In every frame, every breath, every step that each character takes, you, the audience, feel disaster approaching.
Why is it so scary? Similar to Stephen King’s masterful Pet Sematary, the story contains characters that we actually care about in situations that are too unspeakable to imagine. Logic is no longer a compass in these circumstances, and I found myself staring at the screen saying, “Jesus, what would I do in this situation?” Sadness, real gut-wrenching sorrow, is rare in horror. It can serve as unexpected heart in a genre that was once considering heartless, and this can be shocking to many mainstream viewers.
Like Rosemary’s Baby and last year’s eerie hit The Witch the constant anxiety of the unexpected lingers long after the credits roll. Something is wrong, but you don’t know what. Cheap jump scares are replaced with the constant fear that something is lurking very, very close by. When it hits you, it’s like a sledgehammer. You can’t turn away.
My largest praise for its impact—it’s one of the only movies that made me gasp. I’m not that person, truly. There was one scene near the end of the film, however (and you’ll know what it is if you’ve seen it), that drew screams from the audience and an audible gasp from myself. That, in itself, helps you know what you’re in for (and it bears mentioning that more than one person left before the last twenty minutes).
It’s not overly gory, and it’s not in your face. The subtleties of it, along with what I would call “genius mis-marketing,” are the reasons why some psyched-up movie goers were left disappointed. The movie intentionally takes you in the wrong direction. The way I look at it, it’s not a disappointment—it’s brilliant.
Ultimately, Hereditary is a step up for the horror genre. It’s the type of story that’s important to tell, and precisely the kind of story that will keep the genre alive and well. A strong, female lead coupled with a harrowing account of motherhood and mental illness is enough to give you the chills. If you’re open enough, there’s a distinct possibility that feeling will linger long after the film has ended.