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[This story contains spoilers for Hereditary]
If you didn’t already know, horror is experiencing an art house renaissance of sorts. Currently that renaissance is best represented by Ari Aster, whose feature debut Hereditary opened Friday to a fresh batch of raves and the consternation of the viewing public (audiences gave it a dismal D+ CinemaScore).
The film’s exultations went from zero to a thousand when it premiered at Sundance, drawing comparisons to The Exorcist and awards chatter for lead actress Toni Collette; meanwhile, critics are tripping over themselves to cite horror’s function as a mirror for social fears, as if no one’s ever suggested that what scares us most tends to reflect in the horror movies we make and consume. All this overwhelming praise is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s great that horror is being taken seriously by film critics and studios, which likely took note of Get Out’s awards season successes just last year. On the other hand, maybe audiences are leaving theaters frustrated because of the startling turn the film takes in its final minutes, shedding its skin as a creepy family drama and revealing an all-out, and out of place, horror spectacle in which it’s revealed that the stories troubles have all been due to an elaborate pagan ritual.
From its first frame to its last, Hereditary impresses on us its sense of gravity. It’s an Important Film about Important Topics. “Important,” of course, is the wrong word. The right word is “elevated,” a code phrase directors use, and the press parrot, to excuse themselves for denying us the pleasures that make genre movies worth watching in the first place. In the case of Hereditary, it seems “elevating” horror means spinning wheels for two hours, saving its compelling horror elements for the last 10 minutes and walking away satisfied, having proved that horror can be so much more than horrifying. It can be dramatic. It can be melodramatic. It can even be dismissively coy about the supernatural events driving its narrative, sparing us glimpses at stray occult images here, mysterious names scrawled ominously on the wall there, with Collette literally crawling on the ceiling and cutting off her own head with a wire elsewhere.
Aster didn’t set out with horror filmmaking aspirations, mind you; he attempted to get other projects off the ground before getting the green light for Hereditary in part because of its genre. If you walk away from the film feeling Aster approached the story as a family drama first and a horror movie second, declining to deliver on the particulars that we expect from horror, then you’d be right.
The quantum leap Hereditary takes from leaving macabre bread crumb trails to going full-bore with terrors feels unnecessary. Recent years include many examples of sophisticated, art-forward joints that don’t skimp on the good stuff, the details that are central to horror’s identity as a genre: The Wailing (2016), a sweeping tale of demonic possession and paranoia; The Babadook (2014), the story of a single mother and her son under siege in their home by a malevolent, top hat-bedecked entity; and especially The Witch (2016), one of the two key films in horror’s new wave Hereditary emulates. (The other: 2012’s Kill List, a hitman film that turns into a satanic cult film.)
Hereditary is being read as a metaphor for American helplessness, the crushing realization that we, living in the self-styled greatest nation in the world, have no control over our fate’s course as we thrash against the currents sweeping us toward whatever end: economic collapse, nuclear holocaust. But helplessness and horror have always gone hand in hand, whether in lowbrow slasher flicks where running and hiding won’t save you from the masked maniac stalking you, or in art house productions that use real world anxieties as underpinnings for otherworldly threats. Like A24’s The Witch, which also earned strong reviews and a poor CinemaScore (C-).
The Witch is about America before America existed, plagued by tribalist feuding, religious fervor and an uncertain future joined to an equally uncertain present. Talk about helplessness: Try frontier living, where if the hardships of living off the land don’t kill you, wild animals might, or god forbid the monsters lurking in the woods that tower over your homestead. The film, directed by Robert Eggers, isn’t short on freak-out material. He sets about churning our stomachs and stoking our unease right away, pinching baby Samuel (Axtun Henry Dube and Athan Conrad Dube) quite literally from under his sister Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) nose, cutting away to a hovel where we see the witch of the title pulping the infant and smearing her body with his blood. This is before Thomasin’s brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is poisoned, or her mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), hallucinates Samuel’s return while a raven shreds her breast.
It’s not that Hereditary isn’t moody, or atmospheric, or even that it’s bare of unsettling qualities building into its ending. It’s that Aster treats horror’s other essential qualities, its power to instill paralytic fear in us, as superfluous until he can’t anymore, and he hurriedly tosses in a stray MacGuffin, an old photo album, that spills the beans on what’s happening beneath the film’s surface. With little time left, he rushes through the paces, for instance, casually depositing the family dog’s corpse in the background during the climax like a throwaway detail. (At least Eggers killed the family dog as part of the story.) Aster, and Hereditary, are too preoccupied with solemnity. He wants you to know his work means business, not as a horror film but a significant work of art with big ideas and bigger ambitions. Hereditary misses the point of its appellation. Ambition in horror is welcome, even necessary. But horror in horror is doubly so.
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