There’s an odd dichotomy these days when it comes to horror films. With very few notable exceptions like Get Out or A Quiet Place, audiences and critics tend to have almost polar opposite reactions to modern horror. If audiences like it, critics hate it, and vice versa.
So too is the case with Hereditary, written and directed by Ari Aster in his feature debut (he has a strong list of short films to his name, and attended the AFI Conservatory, so you know his bona fides are well in order). The film is beloved by critics, to the point that it carries a “Certified Fresh” rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, the audience score is only 57% as of this publish. It also infamously received a general rating of D+ on Cinemascore, which tallies audience reaction.
So who has it right? Part of me wants to split the difference, because Aster proves he knows how to make a film, and there are some genuinely exceptional moments and scenes, particularly in the shocking gorefest that is the third act. However, I do lean more toward the audience perspective, as the film’s faults far outweigh its successes, and no matter how great the effects are, if they’re in service to a bad story (and this is a BAD story), then they’re ultimately meaningless.
The film begins with an obituary for a woman named Ellen, mother to Annie Graham (Toni Collette), who gives the eulogy at Ellen’s funeral, where it’s noted that Ellen was very secretive, and likely suffered from mental illness. Annie mentions surprise to see as many people at the funeral as there are, as she was unaware of her mother’s social life.
Back home, Annie works as a miniature artist, creating doll house-like dioramas of her house and her experiences in life. Because that’s what you do when you’re a well-adjusted member of society. You make miniature displays of your life of trauma while living in a large, remote house in the middle of a forest. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is straight-laced, loving, and rational, though he hides information from the family when he receives a phone call that Ellen’s grave has been desecrated. Teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff of The Naked Brothers Band and the recent Jumanji reboot) is your average high school stoner, and daughter Charlie (Broadway actress Milly Shapiro, one of three rotating title stars in Matilda) is creepy as fuck, making “toys” out of bits of garbage and bird heads.
You read that right, bird heads. As in, a bird flies into a window, killing itself, so Charlie snips off the bird’s head with scissors to make it the head of her toy. In addition to this fuckitty-upness, she also appears to see the ghost of her grandmother (who, in one of Annie’s miniatures, apparently tried to rip Charlie off of Annie’s breast while nursing in hopes of feeding the girl herself), and is generally aloof. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when the casting people offered her the role. I can only imagine them pitching to her parents, “Look, Milly’s perfect for the role. She just has this absolutely soulless-looking face, like the kid from The Omen. She just looks like she’d murder you at a moment’s notice. She’s PERFECT!” She also reveals that Ellen openly wished she was a boy, which leads to some weird transgender interpretations in the final resolution. She’s established as being 13 years old, which I only bought because she has a defined chest. Otherwise she looks like an emo 8-year-old without any makeup. Do with that what you will.
Anyway, things start to fall apart for Annie. She deals with tragedy on all fronts. Peter becomes distant and detached after suffering a trauma of his own. And through it all, her art – which is in no way a foreboding omen, especially not the plethora of little doll houses all over the place – is falling behind schedule, though it’s also her best coping mechanism.
After going to some grief support group sessions, she’s met by Joan (Ann Dowd, seen just a week ago in American Animals), who comforts her as a friend for a while, before performing a seance with her to speak to her deceased grandson. This eventually convinces Annie that she can perform them as well, despite Peter’s fears and Steve’s rational skepticism. When the seance quickly turns ghastly, Annie becomes convinced that hostile spirits are targeting Peter, and then everything turns to shit, leading up to a climax that’s beyond words, mostly because it makes no fucking sense.
As I said, there’s a LOT of messed up shit in this movie, and it’s all crafted very well. Even the true opening shot is brilliant, as the camera makes a slow zoom into one of the doll house miniatures, only for it to meld into an actual scene in Peter’s bedroom. It sets the immediate tone that everyone in this film is essentially a plaything for Aster, and that there are no rules. The problem is, when you have no rules, you have no logic, and the scares therefore fall flat.
But even beyond that opening, there’s so much good freaky stuff. Headless corpses, devil worship (really just paganism slapped with the label to make it sound scarier), ants covering bodies, characters severing their own heads, spontaneous combustion, people doused in paint thinner, mothers telling their children that they wished they were never born. Like I said, there’s a shit-ton, most of it in the third act, where it comes at you so fast that you don’t have time to react and properly process things before the next thing hits you. It’s a shame, too, because the first two acts are such a slow burn, with only hints of the disturbing shit to come, that spreading out the viscera might have paced things better.
It’s hard to express how shoddy the film’s logic is without giving away spoilers, but it got severely frustrating by the end. One example I can safely give is that after the funeral, Charlie sees two apparitions of Ellen, hinting at a mental/spiritual connection. However, that’s it. The events of the plot prevent that connection from being explored any further, and it’s never even mentioned offhandedly again, so what was the point? Similarly, Annie takes actions late in the film that set a certain standard for the rules of this film’s universe, only to toss them out the window for a beyond illogical shock a few scenes later. It didn’t scare me, it made me angry. And of course, you get the way too on-the-nose soundtrack, which scores scenes intentionally ironically, including a eye roll inducing cover of “Both Sides Now” during the credits.
That said, there are some good things to recommend. Like I said, if you like fucked up imagery, this film has it in droves. You just have to wait a while, and don’t expect it to necessarily make any sense. Also, Alex Wolff gives a really strong performance as Peter, particularly in the thousand-yard stare department. And as for Toni Collette, this may be one of the best performances of her career, because the film asks so much of her from the standpoint of Annie’s character. She has to be strong, sad, and gradually manic to the point of emotional disturbance and insanity, giving way to the family history of mental illness she’d seemingly escaped before the events of the movie. And Collette is admirably game for it all.
And this is why I’m rating this film as low as I am. There are some really well-made elements here, and some very good performances. Ari Aster has a brilliant eye for cinema, but his story chops need a lot of work. I hope with his next project he gets paired with a writer that can give him a script worthy of his camera, because with the right material, he can become a master in almost no time at all. Sadly, Hereditary is not a magnum opus, and I honestly feel nauseous when I read critical reviews placing it in the same horror pantheon as The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby. On a visual level, I sort of get it, but on a story and character level? This is nowhere close. And given the potential on display from Aster, I left the film frustrated and disappointed that he couldn’t bring it all together. It’s a valiant effort, but a failed one overall.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite scary movie? Could all the severed heads in this movie fit into a duffel bag, cause I have a totally original movie idea to pitch! Let me know!