Hereditary ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

"Is this a comedy? Or is this just upsetting? Caught in a conspiracy, no escape from covenity"


I went into this without any marketing, so all I knew was that it concerned a family grieving over a grandmother's recent death.

10 minutes in, I had this film pegged ala Paranormal Activity 3 as skip-a-generation witchcraft, where a grandmother has cunningly groomed her grandchildren, whom proceed to slowly activate following her death. It turns out to be in that realm, but with some conscious subversions along the way. The daughter Charlie is an out-and-out weirdo from the get-go, clearly up to never-do-well. Still, the film opens following death in the family, so grief is all we know (or presume) from them. I could feel this was going to be one of those adjust first viewings, where you don't particularly rate it, but see something majestic which unfurls on second viewing.

I was shocked to find how hilariously camp this film is. It really goes for something we seldom see in American horror cinema, a sort of hysterical, irreverent vein of horror-comedy without the schlock. I hoped it was intentional, because everything else appeared poorly developed and lamely kooky. Certainly not the biannual-cum-biennial smart horror I was promised.

Then that scene happens. I was expecting the son to be the most expendable character. But no, the weird child gets rubbed out quickly, and traumatically. Keeping on the son throughout this sequence (into the next morning) is disturbing. How does the family come back from this, beasties or no beasties?

In short, they can't, their fate stage-managed like Annie's meticulous models. From there, the intensity continues to ramp up the comedy and the upsetting material in concert with one another.

Whenever Ann Dowd enters stage, just run! She never means well, clearly doesn't have a recently deceased son & grandson. You're being played. Ann Dowd seems to be evolving into the actor we'll remember the 2010s for, a bit like M. Emmet Walsh in the 80s, even if she is regularly typecast nowadays (save something like Quarry, where she does vanish into character). I love that day-time carpark scene, which is dripping in paranoiac dread with people constantly entering/exiting cars, as if about to nab Annie, whilst Dowd plays her seance hand, constantly handsy. That was the most effective scene in the film. Expect to see Dowd headlining a Hansel & Gretel film before too long.

It progressively turns out that the plot commenced prior to the film, even prior to the family. The plot thickens to the point where you start considering a family suicide might be the most ideal and honourable option.

I've seen cliche reviews along the lines of hating this became a demonic monster/cult film, preferring the grief/mental illness angle. I get that with some films (e.g. The Babadook especially, Frailty works both ways), but not Hereditary, in which the supernatural stuff always works, and the film is too all-over-the-place and sketchy to sufficiently work as a straight drama. Sure, the trials experienced by the family feel couched in reality, you are aware of the trauma, both steady and erupting, these are essentially real people. You feel their pain, that surviving the film means squat. But it doesn't work as a mental illness film. Or at least I don't want to relate to Annie, or Peter, or Steve, an understandable self-defense mechanism. Maybe some people saw the casting of it-had-to-be-Toni in a mentally questionable role (see the child abuse reading in The Sixth Sense, The United States of Tara, Mental, etc.) and latter-day depressive rationalist Byrne (imagine a nightmare where he married one of his battier In Treatment patients) and thought that was what they were getting. And they do get that. But Hereditary without the higher mayhem frankly is barely passable. It becomes a good film through the externalities, I don't believe the film-makers are strong enough to pull that straight headcase drama off. Likewise, those bemoaning the third act. These people were clearly watching a different film to me.

Hereditary isn't scary. But it is hilarious, intense, and it goes for broke. I respect it for that. There are lots of little details I enjoyed, and the vibe of the film was decidedly new and vital to mainstream American horror. I'll give it another chance.

Still, did we need all those classroom scenes. There were long patches of Hereditary where I found it all too predictable, reliant on performances reaching unnervingly for the hammy edge. And let's talk about that plot. Sister won't do, so we'll orchestrate her exit and his culpable vulnerability to get what we seek. Something about that doesn't pass muster with me. And why is this effectively different to the previous few failed attempts with male family members?

Still, a fun horror which certainly has its moments. I'd file this along with something merely good like Sinister for now, but admire the stylistic reach of Hereditary. Both end rather miserably, but there is an almost resigned peaceful beauty to Hereditary's final minutes (similar to The Witch), the secret ingredient to any good pagan victory. As long as you get a Wicker-esque whiff of evil worth cheering for, as long as there appears to be some folksy fun in it, then it's a job done well.

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