In my sloppy, post-pink eye roundup of random horror movies, I remarked on the Cannes audience’s revulsion while watching the French cannibal flick Raw. It’s about cannibalism, so yeah, it’s gonna be gross. But for some reason, it still provoked some audience members to run out of the theater during an especially gruesome moment near the end of the movie. Moral of the story: you can’t always trust the snobby film festival crowd. Audiences at Cannes or Sundance share quite a bit in common with fans attending a major opening night. Remember how Stephanie described the “oohs,” “ahs,” “boohahas” and “hahahas” at an Avengers: Infinity War screening on its opening night? Don’t fall for the stuffiness of major film festivals; critics are also experiencing a similar euphoria as one of the first to see a particular movie, and that can result in some over-the-top reactions that almost nobody else has once these films are released to the public.
That brings me to the latest shock flick to freak the fuck out of festival attendees: Hereditary. Since its debut at Sundance, it’s been touted by critics as one of the scariest horror films in years, certainly of this year, and a deeply unsettling experience. Having seen this movie, especially as someone who tends to scare easily, I can confirm that these reactions are a bit much. I can imagine people losing it towards the end, but my squeamish self managed to sleep nightmare-free.
This is not to say, however, that this movie isn’t worth seeing. Though lacking in scares, it’s still an unexpected story masterfully written and directed by Ari Aster. The movie starts with the death of Ellen, the mysterious mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette). The rest of the run time is dedicated to the family grappling with tragedy, particularly the tangled web of choice and fate.
This film takes its cues as much from Greek tragedy as horror tropes. Just as gods/goddesses of mythology puppeteer mortals, dark forces take control of the Graham family, these forces being (surprise, surprise) family heritage and some weird demonic/ghost shit. But, like the protagonists of Greek tragedies, we also find the family making awful choices that have devastating consequences.
Ultimately, the scenes that leave the greatest impression deal with complex family dynamics and individual anguish, especially between Annie and her son Peter (Alex Wolff), as they cope with their terrible decisions and the twisted events that befall them. A fight at the dinner table, a panic attack while hitting a bong and wailing at a funeral won’t provoke audience members to run out of the theater in fright or revulsion, but those moments will disturb viewers long after the credits roll.
The greatest flaw of this movie is that there aren’t enough of those little moments of inner turmoil and familial strife. The last quarter of the film shifts its focus almost entirely to some bizarre demon stuff, but it wasn’t quite bizarre enough. The film excels in its execution of the little things—the normally mundane sound of tongue-clicking is transformed into an effective jump scare, the opening shot that zooms into the bedroom of a miniature house establishes one of the film’s central themes, and the devastation that immediately follows a character’s death is captured compellingly without hardly a line of dialogue. These moments are original and effective, unlike the horror clichés that the film gives way to.
Why, then, does this movie rely so heavily on horror tropes? Some moments can’t be taken seriously because we’ve seen them time and time again. Was I supposed to be scared by that séance, or Alex Wolff’s mischievous grin reflected in the glass at school? Because Stephanie and I just laughed. And maybe that was the point of those moments, but they often distracted us from the darkness of these characters’ lives.
The horror trope in this film that might be most problematic is that of the twisted mother. Annie is definitely not the first mom in cinema to endanger her children and act completely batshit. Having said that, Collette adds depth in her take on this trope. It’s difficult to pin her character down—traumatized, mentally ill, evil, concerned for her family, possessed. This erratic character is the driving force of this unexpected journey, and the few legitimately scary moments can be credited to her. (Though her young daughter Charlie, played by Milly Shapiro, is pretty creepy as well.) I couldn’t help but wonder if we really needed yet another maternal horror story to buttress the age-old myth of female hysteria, but at the very least, this movie gave us a compelling take on the trope.
Alex Wolff also gives a gripping performance, conveying grief and guilt in the aftermath of tragedy. At this point, I would like to give my sincerest apology to Alex Wolff, aka the better half of the Naked Brothers Band—you know, that Nickelodeon show of the aughts. Stephanie and I couldn’t help but exchange smirks when we saw who we thought was the star of one of the worst things to ever happen—that of course being Netflix’s live-action, white-washed remake of Death Note. But we were drawn to his performance. And turns out, he wasn’t even in Death Note. That was Nat Wolff, his brother and other half of the Naked Brothers Band. My best wishes to Alex in continuing a promising career, and I certainly hope Nat makes better movie choices in the future.
No, this is not a scary movie, at least for me and others in my screening. But the stylistic prowess and impressive performances make it by far the most disturbing and one of the best movies of the year so far.
Cake rating: This was kinda intense, so I would like something sweet, like chocolate cake—but no nuts, please.
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