[This story contains minor spoilers for Hereditary]
Toni Collette’s Annie is screaming and she won’t stop. She’s just made a horrible discovery, one that comes on top of the already fragile, grieving state she’s been consumed by in the aftermath of her mother’s death. Her screams are violent, wracking, nausea-inducing. They’re the kind of screams that beat an audience into submission, that shock them — not only because they’ve been made to see the same discovery Annie’s made, but because this all-consuming rage, grief, confusion is horror on a level we rarely witness in film and it is truly horrifying.
The screams play out across scenes — time and space are meager anchors for the totality of emotion that shakes the world of this film loose from the eyes of any benign presence. Ari Aster’s Hereditary, has been touted as one of the best horror films in years. It’s hard to disagree. Yet there’s a disconnect between the critical reception and the audience reaction, highlighted by the film’s 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, D+ CinemaScore, and numerous social media takes. The studio that produced it, A24, is no stranger to this divide, with its previous horror films The Witch (2016) and It Comes At Night (2017) being met with similar reception. Despite the CinemaScore, Hereditary is prospering at the box office, with $13 million this weekend, A24’s biggest opening ever.
But perhaps there’s something more interesting within this divide than numbers and letter scores, something that Hereditary explores with confidence.
There is an emotional layer in horror that’s shifting. The genre is built on the audience’s emotional reaction, so much so that many viewers are able to predict exactly when and how they’ll react. Essentially, we as audience members have been trained when to jump and when gasp — trained to fear, despite our sense of what’s coming and a certain level of comfort in knowing who is safe and who is not. This seems particularly true, generally speaking, when it comes to horror films produced by major studios. This is said not to cast shade on what has been an essential part of horror’s popularity, but rather to highlight the difference between where the genre has been and where its going. The films set within the universe of James Wan’s The Conjuring, which have tapped into the legacy of event horror films like The Exorcist (1973) and Poltergeist (1982), have done a remarkable job at perfecting this art form, and have been rewarded for it in terms of critical reception and box office. In these films, taken as one-offs, the future is made safe by the end and the children carry on to live better, more knowledgeable lives. But horror is more than expectation and reward.
At its most effective, horror is a shifting landscape that taps into our present-day fears. What is unearthed is not necessarily novel. But what breaks apart the solid ground of comfortable and familiar horror tropes is psychological horror so strong it manifests as a physical reaction in the characters onscreen — a reaction that seeps from the film and possesses the audience. Horror is more than fear — more than jump scares and blood and darkness. Horror is loss and grief and the feeling of powerlessness. The witnessing of this shift in Aster’s Hereditary makes it a wholly upsetting experience. But what is it exactly that his film says we have to fear?
The film’s title isn’t hiding anything. Much of Hereditary is built around the things we humans pass down to each other — hobbies, facial expressions, allergies, mental illnesses and darker secrets that lie at the heart of the film’s many twists and turns. These are the things we desire, fear and ultimately have no control over. Collette’s Annie makes her living as an artist creating miniatures. The film spends a fair amount of time moving through the spaces of these miniature replicas she’s built of her home, her family and the defining moments in her life. Her art is not only a means of living, but a form of therapy — a way to understand the defining stories in her life.
These miniatures also provide her with some sense of control, an ability to move these little people that look like her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and son Peter (Alex Wolff) around. Early in the film, Annie talks about how her recently deceased mother was manipulative, unaware or perhaps purposefully avoiding the manipulation that forms the basis of her work and very identity. Annie’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) shares her artistic sense, though her work leans towards the abstract in oddities that have a pagan quality to them. Ultimately these shared traits have the same purpose. On one level there is a need to feel in control and leave a tangible legacy. On another, these art works and seclusion in the act of making them foster a disconnect between other people, those who cannot be controlled. There is a sinister beauty to their craft, one that isn’t dissimilar to Aster’s talents as a filmmaker.
As a first-time feature filmmaker, Aster operates with an assuredness that comes from an awareness of the horror genre. In fact, Hereditary, and all that the word encompasses within the film, extends to Aster as well. While an awareness of the genre can lead to the creation tropes and the kind of audience comfort discussed earlier, it can also allow for a break in modern traditions. Hereditary, with its willingness to tap into the oft-regarded off-limits aspect of horror — the brutal death of a child, grounded and unflinching looks at psychotic breaks, identity disorders and PTSD, and characters who share equal parts guilt and innocence — distinguishes itself from popular horror. But its subversive nature isn’t entirely unique, rather Aster embraces the traits passed down by earlier filmmakers in horror movies like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Don’t Look Now (1973).
While recognized as great works of the genre, these aren’t comfortable viewing experiences. They aren’t films of the Netflix and chill variety, films to be casually discussed and inducted into the world of memes with the same frequency as something like Halloween (1978), The Shining (1980), or The Evil Dead (1981). Hereditary, like Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now focuses on very real fears of bringing children into a world sure to harm them in some way. These are films where the greatest horror comes from inside, and any outward manifestations are a result of human beings’ inability to utilize their anxieties in any way that’s beneficial for the next generation.
Hereditary is so upsetting, so shocking and so divisive because it throws audiences into a world where there is no control, and the rules can change from one moment to the next. Annie’s scene-breaking screams are so disturbing because they act as an alarm — a warning that we as viewers have entered unsafe territory. Perhaps given all the social anxieties that come with creating a legacy, with bringing offspring into this world, during this time, Hereditary strikes too close to home. Aster’s film isn’t a simply a great horror because of the illusions it casts, the mistrust for fellow man it sews, or dissolution of the nuclear family. Hereditary is a great film because it feels dangerous it its ability pinpoint how the things we pass can lead to a never-ending cycle of emotional horror.