Hereditary

Hereditary ★★

I think it’s time for me to just accept the fact that I am not a very big fan of A24’s horror output. Sure, some of their dramas are pretty good in my opinion, a few of their comedies have worked for me, the action stuff is fairly alright. But the horror selection, that shit just almost never works for me. There are a few, a select and cherished few, that have really hit the nail on the head and struck a chord with me. Green Room, The Monster, The Blackcoats Daughter, these all come to mind as horror films by this company that have worked really well for me. They come to mind because they are the only three that I thoroughly enjoyed and have revisited out of a desire to do so and not some kind of obligation to convince myself I’m missing something that everyone else is seeing. Unfortunately, if a horror movie is coming out these days and it’s getting some kind of massive hype there’s a solid chance the film has something to do with this company. And I’ve come to realize that there’s an equally likely chance the praise will be undeserved in my mind. And that brings us to this movie, Hereditary. This critically and commercially lauded “horror” film that was almost instantly dubbed a “masterpiece” and one of the “scariest” movies ever made. I held out, I only watched the trailer once, I didn’t run out to see it at the theater. I bought it and I sat on it and I waited. I waited for the hype to die down, for the movie to kind of just fade away, and for my own expectations and desires to fade with it. And when that finally happened a few weeks ago I pulled the dvd out, dusted it off, and tossed it on. And when it was over I was left with the annoying realization that it wouldn’t have mattered how long I waited, how much I forgot about the movie, how faded the hype had become. It wouldn’t have mattered what steps and precautions I took, this movie would just never have worked for me. I would never have viewed this shit as a masterpiece, I would never have used the words horror or scary in association with this film, and more than likely I still wouldn’t have liked it.

The story here is about loss and the deep and painful effects loss can have on all of us. Deeper than that, the film is about mental illness and its potentially devastating hold on individuals and families alike. That is to say, when you cut through all of the tedious and projected bullshit that is what rests at this films core. It picks up shortly after the death of a not-so-beloved grandmother whose death has deeply affected Annie (Toni Collette), the daughter, and soon after strange things are seen and heard around the house. Strange things are also felt and expressed, with ever increasing regularity, by the quite clearly mentally disturbed Annie. After a very tragic, unexpected, and surprisingly gruesome death of another family member things get even stranger and more deranged. The mental breakdowns and clearly disturbed behavior continues to ramp ever upward and just when you begin to forget this is supposedly a horror film and not just some overwrought tale of extreme illness and sadness and inability to help or cope, we meet the cult of demon worshippers. At which point the film takes a hard left into muddled, unconvincing, and contrived horror laced melodrama.

There are some things that do work well in this film. There are a few elements and performances that helped to keep me, at least mildly, invested in the films inexcusable runtime. But even these successes began to wear thing after an hour and a half of redundant round abouting. This is one of those movies that is so acclaimed and beloved and I am just at a complete loss as to why that is.

First off, Toni Collette’s performance is extremely powerful and very captivating, before it completely derails itself. She fully embodies Annie and expresses, not quite gradually but certainly effectively, her rapid descent into insanity. She has, at least, two fantastic scenes showing the range of her ability, and the dual edged sword of her characters unraveling. First off is when she is expressing her family history, and her guilt, to her support group. The second scene, and by far the more powerful and impactful one, was when she completely loses her shit on her son at the dinner table. Her role in the film is easily the most demanding performance, and it is equally the most represented and defined character, and Collette does do a fantastic job. But her character, much quicker than I would have expected in a movie that exceeds two hours, begins to wear thin. I don’t know if it has to do with the screenplay, written by the director himself Ari Aster, or if it’s just the lack of anything really there beyond the base elements of the narrative. It eventually becomes nothing more than a sequence of scenes where she is overwhelmed, paranoid, sad, furious, or completely and irrationally out of her mind. There are only so many times that I can watch her scream and cry and rant and rave before it becomes incredibly predictable and redundant. Watching her trash her studio, watching her yell at her family, watching her cry, watching her devote herself completely to the belief of ghosts and spirits. It all plays out in a ever repeating circle, occasionally out of sequence but always a few scenes away, and that just gets boring to watch. Not because it’s not a committed performance, but because after seeing each of these reactions and behaviors three or four times it becomes apparent that there isn’t much more to this character than set pieces of meltdowns.

There is also the fact that this is, supposed to be, a horror movie. People, especially the radically devout fans of this film, can come at me about how this isn’t a traditional horror film, or how this can’t easily be categorized as any type of well known horror movie. And to that I say bullshit. Whether it’s a straight up horror movie, a psychological horror movie, a religious horror movie, or whether it’s any other kind of combination or classification or subclassification of horror movie, this is credited as being, and was created as, a horror movie. Watching a woman speedily lose her mind, while incredibly sad and heartbreaking to watch given the extreme lack of any real attempts to help her, isn’t all that scary to watch in the horror movie sense of the word. It can be harrowing and intense and unnerving, and in some instances in this film it is, but overall it is not what I would consider scary. When the ending of this movie is factored in, the entire last half hour at least, this entire dedication to Annie’s anguished unwinding is revealed as nothing more than an incredibly extended gimmick, a waste of time essentially. It was so prevalent, and such a dedicated performance from Collette, that when it gets just shoved to the side in favor of a wildly contrived “demon” it makes me wonder what the entire point was anyway.

The rest of the cast is all game for the duration of this movie, but I felt almost no sympathy for any of them which was most assuredly not the intended effect of the film. The only character that got any love from me, that I felt any kind of real humanity in, was Gabriel Byrne as the out of his element and struggling husband and father. He was my anchor to this movie and this story and his character was the only one who, at least a little, attempted to help his very obviously deranged wife and keep his son grounded and present. But even that only went so far. By the middle point of the movie his character’s, Steve, exhaustion almost came across as a bored performance. There was no real energy, no real forceful outbursts or attempts at doing anything to help. He was almost clinical in his delivery and in everything he was doing, as if he was humoring not only Annie but the audience as well. Or perhaps Byrne read the entire screenplay and it occurred to him what a colossal waste of time and dialogue and energy the first 115 minutes of the movie were considering where it was going.

This was only overshadowed by incredibly out played Alex Wolff as the son Peter. He gave it his best, but holy shit he just couldn’t keep up with the others on screen. He has a few scenes, that were obviously needed given the conclusion but still came across as off center and almost forced into the narrative of the story. Until the last three minutes of the movie half of his “scary” scenes don’t even make any fucking sense since Toni Collette’s character is the one in the heart of everything that’s going on. Milly Shapiro as the young Charlie doesn’t really have a lot to do. She has a very interesting look and she plays that up quite well, and her obnoxious tongue clicking seems to have become some kind of cool reference to this movie that just escapes me, but she’s just kind of a ghost for the entire time she’s on the screen. She has very little to say or do besides very troubling behavior that, naturally in this movies universe, goes completely unchecked. Also, and just honestly what the fuck, this kid knows she has an allergy, she is fully capable of getting herself candy bars and eating sweets that don’t have nuts and generally being very smart and on top of her illness. And yet, magically by way of the plot point gods, she eats a cake with enormous chunks of nuts in them, and doesn’t check what she’s eating? At all? You can see the fucking walnuts in that cake and on that table from the goddamn driveway of that house. She was in this movie to serve literally one purpose and one purpose only and nothing she did before that point equated to one iota of importance to this film or it’s story. And when it’s all said and done, the same can be said for every single character on the screen.

There’s a lot of shots of woods and houses and their interiors and some of them did stick out in an odd and almost haunting way. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski managed to shoot a lot of buildings and landscapes in a way that made them look almost like miniatures, much like the ones that Annie, apparently, made a living off of. They were odd and disorienting shots and they were by far the most effective of the film. The only other shot that stood out to me as being both beautiful and foreboding was the shot of the treehouse, in the dead of night and surrounded by towering trees, with the red light from the space heater seeping out of its windows. The handful of shots of that were the best images of the entire film, by a significant margin in my eyes. Equally, Colin Stetson had a few key moments of musically intensity, but just like all aspects of this film they were few and far between and they didn’t amount to much by the finale.

A lot of that blame falls on the story itself. Everything had a moment to shine but it was all brushed aside or gradually revealed to be completely irrelevant as the movie wore on, because this movie thought it was more than it was, but additionally had no fucking clue what it wanted to be. Sure, by the end there’s a cult and all that shit that randomly takes center stage for the finale, but it seemed not only forced but also telegraphed by the foreknowledge of not only what this movie was promoted to be, but by how A24 structures just about every single horror film they’ve put out. I don’t know if it’s the production company or if it’s Ari Aster himself, but this movie clearly thinks it’s not only smarter than it is, but also that it’s smarter than its audience. It builds, or tries to build, tension and suspense and horror in the deconstruction of this family’s mental health only to attempt, unconvincingly and jarringly, at the end to pull a fast one on everyone watching. They undercut all the development and atmosphere that so much time was spent on by introducing this new plot element that makes everything that happened before it seem superfluous and, when you really think about, unnecessary.

The demonic narrative has no weight and makes no sense. At every turn with that element of the movie alterations were made, mid scene, in order to allow the movie to continue moving forward in stops and starts. Why is it even fucking with the son if it wants a female host? What’s the deal with the book in the fireplace scene, and the subsequent death, when all of the parameters of that action had been established only to be instantly disregarded when it became necessary to do so? Why in the throat slashing fuck was Toni Collette flying around and crawling on the ceiling? What kinda dumbass scare tactic was that, given the relatively grounded nature of the rest of the film.What’s the deal with the entire final scene of the movie? How does that make any kind of sense given the fact that what Paimon needed to come back was already discussed and acknowledged? I’ve read in some places that this is some kind of LGBT shout out or homage, and I have no idea why any one on any planet would be thinking that’s a good play. The demon is transgender now? Why the fuck would people be stoked about that kind of representation? It’s almost as horrifically outdated and misguided as this film’s stance on mental illness.

That was my most intensely hated take away from this movie, was the backwards and, actually horrifying, stance on people with mental illness. This film essentially breaks it down as thus; if you have any kind of mental illness, of any sort and of any severity, you are royally fucked. That’s it. That’s Aster’s brilliant understanding of those suffering from such illnesses. If you’re family members, mother or father or grandmother or sister or brother etc etc, had a mental disorder than obviously you do as well. No way around it, that’s just how the cookie crumbles. They got it so you got it, one hundred percent no doubt. If you go to any kind of support group of people suffering from traumatic loss, well chances are solid that they’re demon worshippers. So anyone else suffering from loss, suffering from illness, or just offering to help and console, they’re evil and will lead to nothing but worsening your own ailments and leading to your inevitable self decapitation. If you’re like Steve and want to help a loved one who is sick? What an idiot, don’t fucking bother, you’re no match and will probably be inexplicably set on fire in direct contradiction to established plot directives. Essentially, mental illness is the world and we are just the miniatures that populate it. Or, perhaps more apt, mental illness is a telegraphed telephone pole just waiting for us to come up for air.

Perhaps that’s the scariest element of this movie, its complete and utter misunderstanding of mental illness. It portrays everyone and anyone ill, or effected by those who are ill, as completely helpless and beyond being a lost cause. It posits that they are demons or demon worshippers or demonic vessels. It says not only that there is no escape but that there is no hope for help of any kind. There is no shelter from that particular storm. Not only is that bleak, not only is that scary, but it’s wrong. Sure, it makes a convenient plot device to propel things into motion, it makes an easy motif to fuck around with for almost two hours before discarding, but beyond that it’s completely devoid of all meaning by it’s utter falseness. Much like the main portion of this movie. All of it is a contrived, unfocused, misunderstood, and overwrought misdirection to give us a bunch of random naked people and a floating woman. Given the conclusion of this movie, the way it all spins on its heels in a foregone direction to a predictable conclusion, not one instance of anything that happened in this movie would have been any different if mental illness was eliminated entirely from the plot. Screaming matches, meltdowns, destruction of work and family, a desire to seek help and closure, all of that stuff happens to quite literally every human being ever regardless of their mental state. I sense the only reason mental instability was so prominent was because it is the only thing that remotely affords the title any semblance of sense.

I don’t know what it is with horror fans these days, I truly don’t. I have been a horrorhound for my entire life, and will continue to be until I accidentally set my arm on fire and decapitate myself with a handy piano wire. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to jump on the bandwagon for any horror flick that comes out with some good acting and a decent budget. I get it. Horror is saturated with shit and it has been for an incredibly long time. Digging through the muck to try and find gold gets really old, really boring, and pretty expensive. But that’s half the fun for me. I love creature features and slashers and psychological thrillers. I love just about every kind of horror movie that exists, in just about every subgenre there is with very limited exceptions. But I won’t buy into the bullshit of this new wave of adored horror movies that get their genitals slathered by critics worldwide. It’d be nice to see some more original horror films, some new icons and ideas, some new plots, I fully agree with that sentiment. But I won’t force it and I won’t just slap a five star rating on anything that comes my way with a slightly different approach.

Equally true is the fact that I won’t make any asinine or hyperbolic statements like “I’m done with A24 forever”. That would be foolish of me and a complete lie. They churn out horror movies pretty frequently and no matter what my reservations are I’m going to wind up watching a good chunk of them. But goddamn are they wearing on my last nerve. I get it, you start a movie in one way, make a tiny pivot about halfway through, and then slap me across the eyes with some ridiculous finale. It’s pretty much standard for them at this point, in one way or another. I can’t escape them and therefore I will of course subject myself to their output time and time again, all for the love of my favorite genre. But they’re striking out a lot more than not and I just can’t seem to grasp this overwhelming love for their filmography. I’ll keep trying, but sometimes, as all the true classics have proven time and time again, less is so much more.

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