Vinny takes a look at the critically acclaimed Hereditary, where it succeeds and where it loses direction.
Horror is popular amongst writers and directors alike.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
The basis of all storytelling is essentially to provide warnings. Cautionary tales, both real and fictional, dominate our culture. Horror films more often warn about things that probably won’t happen, but it is why they can be so disturbing. As simple as this all seems, finding a balance is fairly difficult. Different things scare different people. What is horrifying to one person may be simply ridiculous to others.
Craft can triumph over this.
Hereditary does just that…almost.
Setting the Stage
The strongest aspects of Hereditary can be found within the first hour and a half. The imagery is haunting, never even attempting a jump scare. The few overt aspects of the haunting are exceptionally well shot and, if you’re not paying attention, could even be missed. Notably, there is the unique and brutal shot of the decapitated head of Milly Shapiro’s Charlie. This is especially unnerving as it establishes just how far Writer/Director Ari Aster is willing to go. That in itself creates tension. Outside of this, there is an especially haunting shot of Toni Collette’s Annie. Annie sits emotionless in the car where her teenage daughter was decapitated. She appears as a ghost, though the audience is well aware she is not.
Perhaps most important is the cast. Though all present are remarkable, Collette and Gabriel Byrne, as Annie’s husband Steve, create a believable and tragic base for tale. As the plot develops, the audience is never quite able to put their finger on what will happen next. More importantly, it’s never clear how powerful the surrounding evil is.
“It’s like A Nightmare on Elm Street was interrupted by A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and then whipped back for the closing shots.”
Sticking the Landing
Before I start waging a bit of criticism on the film, I think what Aster did accomplish in his first feature is admirable. There is a nice bit of uncertainty and the ability to garner the performances he has affirm a bright future. He just didn’t stick the landing.
Hereditary doesn’t need a twist. The premise as presented and developed is horrifying regardless of its familiar elements. Anyone paying attention through the film can figure out the cult aspect of it, but that doesn’t mean Ellen and Joan’s devious plot is a typical one. If anything, the reveal of Ellen’s rotting corpse could have been the biggest turn in the film. It is something just close enough to reality to be disturbing. Losing twenty or thirty minutes off the end could have made the admittedly disturbing imagery of Paimon’s idol an even more impactful moment.
Instead, the last stretch of the film seems to turn to the contemporary conventions that the rest of the film seems to buck. Without much warning, Annie is the wall-crawling ghoul better suited for a James Wan or Blumhouse film. It’s not so much that those movies are poorly crafted, but Aster had been giving the audience something more cerebral and brutal for most of the film.
It doesn’t fit.
The selective restraint was one of the coolest aspects of Hereditary. Though established in some early scenes, Charlie possessing her brother seems like a last minute twist. It feels like the film forgot how much it had already explained and decided to break all of its own rules. It moves at a lightning pace, clearly intending to convey chaos, but failing to live up to its promise. The pacing moves from expert to poor quite suddenly. Characters start bursting into flames and sawing off their own heads. It’s like A Nightmare on Elm Street was interrupted by A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and then whipped back for the closing shots.
The end of Hereditary feels like Aster lost confidence in his own concept and wanted something more like his contemporaries. While the film was well-received and Aster will likely knock one out of the park, Hereditary was mere moments away from being something revolutionary. It lost it when it wanted to be like everything else.