Notes from a Writer: “Hereditary” and Cheap Thrills



It takes a lot to psych me up to go see a horror film.  There has to be something in it more than chills, whether that’s a paycheck or the recommendation of a trusted friend or a major cultural impact.

I have been hearing about “Hereditary” now for months.  It got fantastic reviews.  It’s got a good cast.  I was hearing words like “unique” and “different” about it.  I was interested enough to try to make it to a press screening (which was foiled by little league baseball duties).

And then, something interesting happened – the movie came out and the early audience reaction (as tabulated by CinemaScore) was resoundingly negative.  Critics were then seeing something in this film that audiences either saw and hated or missed entirely.

Well, that only furthered my interest.  How could critics feel so positive about something and critics so negative?  I was sold.  I had to see it.

I know I’ve talked about my watching horror before, but it’s a topic I return to, just as it’s a genre I return to, in order to try to exorcise those demons.

I am not there yet.  I sat there in the theater with the pre-show running, and then the trailers, and I felt distinctly uneasy.  There was a tingling on the back of my neck.  The theater felt unnaturally cold.  I was more than a little queasy.

Soon enough though, “Hereditary” started and I was entranced.  I loved the way it mixed the images of the miniatures with the real world. I loved the way it slowly peeled back the layers of this family, as though they were an onion, with the recently deceased grandmother at the rotten core.

I loved the twists I didn’t see coming and castigated myself for not watching the trailers more closely to see if I could have figured them out early on.  I loved the way Ari Aster (who wrote and directed the film) gave “Hereditary” that same something all good horror movies have – a rational, down-to-earth, common, set of occurrences that then turn into something more.  Isn’t that what makes a movie scary?  Being able to put yourself oh-so-easily into the shoes of these people who quickly find unspeakable things happening to them?

By the time the story in “Hereditary” veered into the supernatural, I was hooked and dying to see what was going to take place.  One of the big scenes in it, however, didn’t work for me – without spoiling anything, I’m thinking of a heated discussion between Toni Collette’s Annie and Gabriel Byrne’s Steve on towards the end of the film.  Even though the film had been building towards such a discussion, it still felt to me like a step or two had been missed along the way.

On the plus side, the moment wasn’t jarring enough to pull me out of the movie and I watched agog until the credits rolled.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience although I never found it terribly frightening. It is a movie I would happily, excitedly even, watch again.

In the end though, and I’m sorry to disappoint you, I cannot figure out why audiences didn’t respond in the way critics did.  It is all too easy, and I think dismissive of audiences, to say that the movie lacked jump scares and that such a lack caused the masses to dislike it.  I have other, equally bad, theories:  it’s a slow burn, there’s not a lot of hack-and-slash, it asks audiences to think rather than putting everything out there.  All of these thoughts are too anti-audience to make me comfortable espousing them.
That said, a couple who was in the mostly empty theater with me yesterday left the movie questioning what had actually taken place, unsure of the ending.  They didn’t seem to dislike it, they just didn’t understand it.  I could see how, for other people, that might cause grave dislike and affect their feelings coming out of a screening.  But, again, that’s just a guess.  It isn’t even a hypothesis.

I will end this somewhat obtuse, disjointed, narrative with this – I would happily go see a million more films that work as well as “Hereditary.”  It is a fascinating movie.  I do not believe though that having seen this will cause me to hesitate any less before going into my next horror film.

Time will tell.

photo credit: A24 Films

Categories: Random Thoughts

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