Films like Hereditary fall into an established pattern of success. From bubbling word of mouth on the festival circuit to glowing reviews from genre tastemakers right through to a cinematic release that splits its audience neatly down the middle. For some, the arthouse stylings are a breath of fresh air in a stale and stuffy genre. For others the ponderous, navel-gazing tone will have them wishing for the visceral (if predictable) gut-punches that Blumhouse’s next offering is bound to deliver. It’s been a path trodden by a few of the most ground-breaking horror films in recent years, including The VVitch, It Follows and The Babadook, with which Hereditary has a great deal in common.
Like those films, Hereditary has an ambitious visual style and a story that reveals a high level of genre literacy. Like them it boasts an extraordinary lead performance and relies on striking imagery to provoke dread rather than leaning on jump-scares. But is it able to stand toe-to-toe with these films, many of which are coming to be recognised as the first horror landmarks of the 21st Century?
Unlike It Follows, which sets its stall out as quickly as possible by presenting the audience with a strict set of rules, Hereditary spends most of its runtime leaving the audience guessing about where the plot will end up. In an opening shot which draws comparison with Wes Anderson, we close in on a miniature diorama until characters enter and interact with each other. This is our fist clue that we are entering a constructed, artificial world full of characters that do not realise they are playing somebody else’s game. A family prepare for their grandmother’s funeral, at which the mother’s eulogy hints at a strained relationship and the possibility of occult secrets.
From then, the film more or less ignores the supernatural signposting of the opening scene in order to deliver a blistering family breakdown narrative about grief, resentment and generational conflict, following a shocking and uncomfortable twist. In this sense it feels a lot closer to Don’t Look Back than The Exorcist, despite what its marketing would have you believe.
It is this middle section that will make or break the film for many viewers. Those expecting a horrific thrill ride may be confused with the apparent lack of narrative thrust, and by a few expository scenes that can drag. This mid-film lull prevents Hereditary from achieving the sense of unbearable, throbbing tension that characterises films like The VVitch and Kill List.
The film with which Hereditary can most easily be compared is The Babadook. Both films feature extraordinary performances by their leads, and Toni Collette’s frantic and unhinged depiction is truly electrifying. In both cases, the performances are made so much more interesting by the fact that the films reject the familiar cinematic view of motherhood, where mothers are either angelic or monstrous, in favour of much more nuanced and realistic portrayals.
Where the two films compare less favourably is in their use of horror tropes. The Babadook drew on German Expressionist and surrealist imagery in a way that made it feel like a microcosm of horror film history itself. Hereditary’s borrowed moments feel a bit more hackneyed. We are introduced to Alex Wolff’s character in a coincidentally relevant high school English class that could have been a deleted scene from Donnie Darko, and anyone who has seen Rosemary’s Baby will be able to guess Ann Dowd’s role in the story from the second she enters the fray.
All this aside, when Hereditary begins to tie off its loose ends in the final third, everything is forgiven. The scares are expertly constructed and the imagery grotesque and creative. All is resolved In an incendiary climax that somehow still manages to leave just enough aspects of the plot to the imagination. With a touch of folk horror and a smattering of supernatural body horror, haunted house and possession tropes are all woven together into a collection of sequences that represent an incredible achievement in horror artistry.
So, is Hereditary worthy of taking its place with the rest of the new horror classics? Frustratingly, the answer is yes and no. In its inconsistencies it falls short of films like The Babadook and The VVitch, but in its triumphs it far surpasses them. One certainty remains however; anyone who considers themselves a horror fan deserves to experience it.