The horror genre has had an interesting life. If you ask someone to name off horror movies, you likely will get many of the classic series that began in the 70s and 80s: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween. However, it’s debatable if any of the typical genre movies could actually be considered good, worth watching, making you think about them for days. This is because there was a long time, particularly through most of the 90s and early 00s, when horror was considered a niche genre filled with easy jump scares, unrelatable villains, and defenseless damsels in distress, all of which sacrifice any stakes or deeper meaning. Any decent horror movie of that period had to step outside the bounds of those tropes to make a sizable box office grab. The rest ended up flopping or going quickly to video to try to make as much money as possible. Thus many good, scary movies aren’t strictly horror films but a blend of other genres as well.
Today things are quite different for the genre. Directors have begun to find different ways to frighten us while still managing to tell great stories. They’ve learned that mixing in other elements such as science fiction or drama helps broaden the appeal of the movie while making the story more relatable. They’ve also found that constant suspense, atmosphere, the feeling that you know something is going to happen you just don’t know when, work as a much better fear tactics than the jumps of yesteryear. Using these methods, a director can still craft and tell a story while scaring the watcher now and then. There are some great examples of using this style to great effect just in the last few years–The Witch, It Follows, Get Out–all of which I recommend seeing.
Hereditary is the newest member of this new breed of horror. It stars the wonderful and talented Toni Colette (Little Miss Sunshine, United States of Tara) as Annie, who really played this part for all it’s worth. Telling too much about the movie’s plot, or even comparing it to other movies with similar premises, would probably spoil it, but I can say that the film begins with the death and funeral of Annie’s mother. Like any family, this one has its demons and the sudden loss causes many emotions and event that have been tucked away or ignored to be confronted head on. Later in the movie, the great Ann Dowd (The Leftovers, The Handmaid’s Tale) makes an appearance as Joan, who wants to comfort Annie in her grief. The story is a complete downward spiral with not much in the way of levity, a constant grief building throughout with an ending that just begs to be explored.
Each of the four members of the family serves a distinct purpose for the the film: Annie is our window into this world, Steve is the largely absent and disbelieving father, Peter is the average everyday teenager, and Charlie is the troubled child. I have to say that the casting director did an excellent job finding talented actors to embody each of these roles. As I said, Toni is amazing in this role. She always seems to excel when playing a manic mother and wife. But the real find here is Millie Shapiro who plays Charlie, which is her first true acting gig. There’s always a risk in using new child actors, but after this performance, Millie may see a lot of doors open for her.
Jump scares have almost been completely supplanted in Hereditary with horrific imagery and tense situations. However, that might be to its detriment for people who are less cerebral when they watch movies. Those who are expecting to being scared of the things they see may be disappointed by the fact that this movie wants the viewer to be scared of those that they can’t. This is the premise of psychological horror, where the fear comes from thinking about the possibilities rather than viewing concrete events. For the most part, Hereditary excels at this. What makes this movie particularly scary is that through most of its runtime the scenes depicted could actually happen to a family who were all simply losing their minds. At one point I wondered if these four were actually dead and didn’t know it, like a certain other movie Toni was in.
Unfortunately, it’s never particularly clear on what some of the imagery means that is depicted. I don’t want to give any specific examples, but it seems to place importance on some recurring events without ever explaining any deeper meaning to them. I found it best to take these things with a grain of salt, but some viewers may be annoyed. The movie also could have been a little tighter at explaining the consequences of the events depicted. Though I was left considering facets of the movie afterward and how well done they were, I was confused about why anyone should ultimately care if this happened in real life. It also wasn’t completely clear to me whether or not the overall goal was ever achieved.
My small gripes aside, Hereditary is a spectacular addition to the horror genre. Even my husband, who says he doesn’t like horror movies, loved it. Let me know what you thought of the movie and feel free to discuss spoilers below.