Growing up, my mom had one rule for my older brother whenever he went out: Take your little brother. I enjoyed hanging out with him but now that I’m older, I understand how much I was cramping his style. Since we lived in a small town, there weren’t very many places to go. Football game? Well, he played football so that’s a no-go. That only leaves the movies. Marengo Theater. If you wanted to see a movie, your choices were a matinee, a 7:00 movie and a 9:00 movie, which was usually PG-13 or R. All the cool people went to the 9:00 movie. One particular weekend in 1999, the movie was Stigmata, which taught me the pitfalls of being a tagalong. I was frightened by this movie. So frightened, in fact, I slept with a nightlight until the age of 15. I was born in ’88 so you do the math. Stigmata scared me because of the imagery. It pierced into my head and to this day, I refuse to rewatch it. Even though it was scary, I can now admit it wasn’t a good movie. Its scares relied on giving me exactly what I thought I would get from a horror movie. I’m now older and more attentive. I pay more attention to the nuances that separate bad movies from good and makes good movies great. When that imagery is gone or those jump scares are absent, what is the movie doing? Usually, it’s setting up more imagery and jump scares. If a film layered fine details piece by piece and made each of those details matter later, now that would be scary. The film production company A24 last two horror outings dabbled with this. The Witch used its silence and slow pace to build tension. It Comes at Night made the expectations of the audience its monster. Hereditary’s monster is smiling in your face the entire time. It establishes itself and earns its scares. Hereditary is a good horror movie because it’s a great film.
On the surface layer, Hereditary is a malevolent apparition haunting a family. Underneath, it’s about the downward spiral of a family due to secrets, interesting choices, and a curse that will lead to their inevitable destruction. The movie opens with an obituary printed over a black screen. Obituaries are supposed to be commemorations but this one was incredibly creepy once I read the details. The first shot of the movie is a beautiful look at the treehouse from within the window of the Graham house. It then transitions to the funeral, which serves as the most important part of the movie. The smiling man during the viewing of the body. The eulogy that lays out the family curse. Hereditary doesn’t just show you the scares, it takes the time to implant them in your mind to call them back later. The eulogy made me question why the mother was so secretive and distant. Those questions began answering themselves as the movie progressed. Once the smiling man reappeared, it was the most frightening moment of the movie.
While the storytelling is great, the film making is superior. During tense moments, close-ups are used to capture every bit of horror in the character’s face. Moments of dead silence are broken up by a startling moment. The camera remains active and focuses on everything happening in the room rather than one single character. Every single shot of this movie is meticulously framed and not one scene is wasted. The editing helps the film flow as well. The film is written to not hold the audience’s hand. It’s careful not to tell you too much before you need to know it, but the way the movie is edited captures you visually in order to play around with your emotional state. One of the best editing effects occurs when the last frame of the previous scene is juxtaposed onto Peter’s face during a scene transition. Technical aspects aside, this movie still needs great actors to be properly executed. Hereditary has three standout performances. Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, and Ann Dowd stand out, although everyone is stellar. Toni Collette’s performance goes from a character trying to hold it all together and slowly deteriorates into a state of madness. Milly Shapiro knows exactly what her role calls for and hides the grand plan behind her innocence. Although she comes across as being very creepy, I initially found myself pitying her as the movie went on. Ann Dowd just steals the scene whenever she’s on screen. The slow reveal of her character and her motivations were impactful considering the clues were there the entire time.
Hereditary is a horror movie for the ages because it didn’t rely on traditional scares. Actually, it’s not all that scary at all but that makes it scary. Remember the story of young Ron tagging along with his brother who took him somewhere because mom asked him to? A similar situation was the pivotal point of Hereditary and recalling that memory was chilling. Family is the huge motif of this movie and each reveal became more and more shocking. Good fortune and wealth can be an inheritance but so can pain and grief. Annie (Toni Collette) spent her life trying to make sense out of the death of her father and brother. She spent the days after her mother’s death wondering why she was so secretive and cold. She revealed she never wanted Peter (Alex Wolff) and although she took a liking to Charlie, Charlie was practically raised by her grandmother. Think about every secret your family has. Every grandmother, although not explicitly stated, has a favorite. So what if your grandmother was molding her favorite to become the heir to a council of demonology that would soon conjure the spirit of a king of hell? Why didn’t the grandmother take to Annie?
Even when the audience is led to believe Annie is descending into madness with her sleepwalking spells, we learn she was doing this to protect her family. Their fate was already written and they have no control. The thought of having your entire existence operating within the framework of a sinister plot scares me the more I think about it. Annie’s dollhouses are the perfect metaphor. The dollhouses often felt like they had their own life but Annie was controlling the scenery. Annie applied great details to the dolls and made the houses look realistic. They were reenactments of horrific events occurring in her life. The dolls had no control over the events being plotted out by Annie and she had no control over the events that inspired her dollhouses. Seeing Charlie create her toys and how they were ultimately used in the end connects to Annie’s dolls.
Basic scares are placed on top of the foundation of family horrors as well. Annie seeing her mother after the funeral was a shocking moment. Charlie’s death as well. A lesser movie would have opted to play this differently by showing it immediately but cutting back to it later was far more effective. Anne chasing Peter around the house gave me chills. It was set up perfectly because it used your eyes against you. In the dark, that broomstick in the corner may look like a person in your periphery. Annie crouched atop the ceiling provided an instant scare. Finally, the ending. Everything led back to the treehouse. That red light shining through the window foreshadowed death and demise throughout the final movie. The camera circles Peter’s blank face as Joan (Ann Dowd) is praising him. There’s a shrine, a picture of the grandmother, and many followers. It’s the ending I was expecting the entire time but was still surprised by it. Hereditary works on every level for me. It manages your expectations but still keeps you at arm’s length by incorporating a few unexpected elements. It cares about those finer details that most movies ignore. It started by creating family drama then layered horrific events on top of that foundation. I went into this movie knowing enough but I’m still surprised by what happened. I usually don’t do horror movies, mostly because they’re all bad, but this movie is an instant classic for me.