Jack Keane’s review published on Letterboxd :
"I never wanted to be your mother."
I kept cautious of the head of hype that had built up around Hereditary. Such initial nigh-universal positive buzz I didn't think I'd heard since the days of Whiplash or Mad Max: Fury Road. But this soon became tempered by the tepid general audience response, which called into question precisely how good the actual film might be.
The biggest point of filmic comparison made was with previous fellow A24 production, The Witch, which gave me a good gauge of what needs must be necessitated in terms of my expectation levels - i.e. hearing in advance a tonne of reviews declaring it a masterpiece that was uniquely disquieting and disturbing and felt almost literally unholy to watch, only to find (in my own subjective point-of-view) that the film was only very very very very good, but which fell frustratingly short of really hitting that sweet spot of what I find makes a horror film honestly horrific and truly terrifying to me.
Hence, going into the cinema screening with that in mind, I prepared myself for the potential outcomes that (at worst) Hereditary would totally suck and blow, or (at best) Hereditary would similarly wind up leaving me feeling the same way that The Witch did... something along the lines of 90% happily unnerved and impressed, and 10% disappointedly slightly short-changed that I didn't get out of it what all the five-star-reviewers had so eloquently and convincingly said that they had gotten out of it.
So at last, I watched Hereditary, and...
Fucking fuckety fuck-sticks.
JESUS H. TAP-DANCING CHRIST.
Hereditary is the real deal, my friends.
Whether you've yet seen it or not, I won't be able to convince all of you of this (nor will I pretend that I could even do such a thing), because I also can recognise the things about the film which make it absolutely not work for so many who watch it.
Point of fact, during the last 20 minutes in my screening of the film, there were many in the audience who were laughing during many moments that the film was most certainly not intending to be funny; and once the credits started rolling, and everyone was leaving, I heard one girl say to the group she was with:
"That was actually the funniest film I've ever seen!"
Meanwhile, I'm still sitting in my seat, still re-learning to properly breathe and regain enough composure to un-stiffen my muscles and walk again (and I'm only mildly exaggerating about that), when mere moments later, a girl sitting with her boyfriend in the row in front of me happened to turn around, and let out a sharp little scream in surprise at the sight of me, because A) she hadn't expected to see anyone sitting behind them, and B) the film had creeped her out just enough to set her nerves on edge.
(N.B. - We three total strangers had a nice little discussion about the film on the way out, as we walked to our differing modes of transportation home. It was quite nice. Definitely helped take the edge off of the lingering potent post-film anxiety, that's for sure.)
So when it comes to the type of scariness that Hereditary presents to you, believe me when I tell you that your mileage may very well vary, as this is one of the ultimate examples of a "You-Get-Out-Of-It-What-You-Bring-In-To-It" movie, if ever I've seen one.
But allow me to elucidate on the reasons why Hereditary worked for me, speaking just from my own experience of this blood-curdling injection of pure uncut nightmare fuel...
You know those times in your life when you're talking with another person, and at a point in the conversation, they happen to drop a bomb of information about something that's happened in their lives which is so unfathomably dark and unbearably sad and unbelievably tragic, that you can barely bring yourself to imagine how they've survived such things, let alone are able to openly talk about these things they've lived through?
You know those times in your life when you ARE that person, and you're fully aware of how thermo-nuclearly loaded your words and your recounted experiences can be for others to hear and process, but even though you are the one who was directly personally affected, you become a kind of calm eye at the centre of the storm of your story, somehow capable of relaying what you've lived through just dispassionately enough to get through the telling of it without falling down?
Hereditary is all about people like that, on both sides of that dreadful coin; one person hearing others talk of living under the crippling weight of a grief and a trauma that they can't fully comprehend, even while that one person has themselves been through such ordeals that the others wouldn't believe were possible to live with, let alone move on from.
It's about (as the title plainly suggests) the fear of familial inheritance of self-destructive forces you desperately hope you can escape, even while you know you have no control over what is and isn't skin/bone/genes-deep, and that sometimes, even though the future isn't set in stone, a part of your destiny may be written in your very blood; a ticking time-bomb, tucked into the code of your DNA.
It's about the insane and the absurd, each inextricably linked... that which is nearly-hilarious in its blatant nonsensical madness becoming neutered, twisted, and coldly corrupted by the genuinely insane having an unblinking, unshakeable belief in what they see as making infallible sense and logic, which no one can rationally reason with, their resulting actions thus made even more inexplicable and terrifying.
It's about feeling unsafe in your own home, and feeling fear of someone in your own family... fear of every unpredictable response... fear of every little move you make and word you speak being surveilled and catalogued for future emotional torture... fear of accidentally triggering a violent outburst over something you didn't know you weren't supposed to say or think... fear of what they could potentially do to you... and worst of all, the fear that you could one day become just like them.
And even though the world of Hereditary is tinged with a supernatural malevolence, it doesn't negate the film's explorations of the comparatively mundane, but still very real, deep-rooted, human fears that we are often too frightened to peer too closely and examine meaningfully, because those anxieties could swallow us whole.
In fact, that inhuman thrum of menace surrounding the proceedings only serves to underline and amplify the darkness that was already lurking within the characters' souls. The gut-wrenching thing about it all is witnessing the tragedy of these characters' inner demons being cruelly exploited and manipulated by forces that will not allow them the chance to escape their cycle of illness and abuse, disavowing them of their autonomy and free will, until they're broken down into nothing more than playthings in a dollhouse...
Why does this film's ending underwhelm, or even outright repel, many of its viewers? Even those who actually were enjoying the film, right up until then?
The thing about Hereditary is that if you look at it from just a straightforward plot perspective, it's generally cut from a pretty standard horror story mould. If you boil it down to its barest essentials, you'll see that you've seen this story done countless times before.
Superficially, this bears more than a passing resemblance to - and shares various mix-and-matched elements with - The House of the Devil, Rosemary's Baby, Paranormal Activity 3, The Neon Demon, Kill List, The Wicker Man, The Blackcoat's Daughter, The Last Exorcism, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and the aforementioned The VVitch.
And in the cases of all those films, their ultimate denouements vary dramatically in how successfully they pull off their similar finale tropes.
So, why did Hereditary's ostensibly over-familiar ending push all the right buttons for me, even when its sort-of-selfsame implementation in, like, House of the Devil or Killing of a Sacred Deer, really did not push any of those figurative buttons in the slightest, resulting in movies I found to be a let down right at the very end, when it should have counted the most?
Well, for one thing, it goes back to that old Roger Ebert saying:
"It's not what a movie is about... it's how it is about it."
And again, it's that notion of the insane and the absurd.
Because looking at it divorced from context, Hereditary's finale features some patently ridiculous stuff that, by itself, would land it square into spoof territory - hence why so many people in the audience I was amongst were to be heard giggling.
But as I saw it, the ridiculousness was superseded by the ferociously frightening seriousness with which it was being taken by those who had laid the groundwork for this finale to happen, as seen by their monstrous actions that had lead to this even happening at all.
The near-comical, the definitely-vile, and the devastatingly-emotional were all intermingled into a sickening, roiling stew of utter stomach-twisting intensity, that made me feel like this was a window into a scene of true unbridled, unglamourous, repulsively repugnant EVIL and INSANITY.
I felt my blood run cold, drain from my face, and pool in my feet.
My heart was all arrhythmic palpitation.
My gut sank away into the pit of an endless void.
My muscles tensed, shoulders hunched, claw-like hands clutching my legs ever-tighter with wound-up coiled tension.
I almost couldn't bear to watch it unfold...
...and yet I also couldn't tear my eyes away for a second.
The command, control, skill, patience, craftsmanship, precision, subtlety, and mastery that writer/director Ari Aster has in his debut feature film is every hyperbolic superlative you can think of, and more.
His is the kind of surefire directorial construction that, for a good long while afterwards, infuriatingly makes any other movie you watch seem inexcusably lazy and uninspired by comparison.
Practically every shot you see is meticulously calibrated for wringing out the maximum amount of dread, suspense, and occasionally pure guttural, visceral upset that there is possible to extract from any given scene.
And much like, say, David Fincher - that great directorial Jedi master - something that Aster here excels at doing is what Fincher calls "stretching the moment".
He poses a silent question - (what is that horrible sound? what is this character seeing that we're not? what exactly just happened?) - and then streeeeetches out the gap between the question being asked, and the answer being revealed (or sometimes worse, not being revealed), in order to hook and reel you in like the plumpest bait, whether you like it or not.
(And especially during the last act, you will really not like what awaits the end of those deliciously interminable stretched moments.)
Pawel Pogorzelski's sickly gorgeous cinematography is a crucial, indispensable component to the overall film's creep factor, his way with conjuring and manipulating darkness and shadow and cunning slivers of light are fucking diabolical in how fruitful they are in creating the innumerable unforgettable shots and images that you will never be able to un-see, nor scrub from your memory.
Colin Stetson's positively demonic soundtrack is a growling, rumbling, percussive, ravenously relentless beast of monumental aural awe and terror, evoking non-stop soup-thick unease that you want to beg for release from, but which it refuses to grant, as it shows you no mercy in its mission to hungrily gnaw away at your every nerve with the frantic push-pull of a blunt saw-blade.
(And that's not even mentioning that one track, "Reborn", which is simultaneously knee-quiveringly gorgeous and overwhelming in its literal awesomeness, and utterly terrifying in its punishing fuzzed-out harshness of sound.)
And holy fucking nerf worms, THAT SOUND DESIGN CAN FUCK ALL THE WAY RIGHT OFF.
It is some serious black magic bullshit, and it should be downright illegal.
While watching the film, I couldn't tell whether some sounds were emanating from the audience, or from the film, or from my mind.
This goes doubly so for that one sound... you know the one... that goddamn Mark Zuckerberg glottal stop/gag reflex CLUCK??
In the film, I thought I kept hearing it in parts where it wasn't being drawn attention to, and I wasn't sure if it was just all in my imagination, or if the sound design was playing it so intentionally subtly in order to fuck with you, and make you think you may or not have really heard it.
...later, as I was walking back to the train station to get back home afterwards--
--WHERE THE FUCK DID THAT COME FROM?!?
DID I ACTUALLY HEAR THAT???!?
IS SOMEONE WHO WAS IN THE SAME SCREENING AS ME JUST HAPPENING TO PASS BY AND UNRELATEDLY MAKE THE SOUND TO FREAK THEIR FRIENDS OUT??????!??!??!
WHAT LANGUAGE IS EVEN THAT????!??!??!?!??!?!?!?!?
(Side note: I love those weird little non-sequiturs Aster sneaks into the dialogue here and there (such as that last line above, or the "that face on your face" moment); it just adds that little extra bit of believability and nuance to the characters, showing them slipping up in their grammar and syntax without even noticing it. Also adds to the whole off-kilter feeling of the piece, I should imagine.)
But naturally, the biggest thing that helps sell the movie as well as it does to those receptive to it, is the acting from certainly all and sundry, but especially Toni Collette and Alex Wolff, who deliver such god-tier, first-class, frightfully good, and frighteningly intense performances, you actually worry for the actors' health, and how they're psychologically coping with all this mental mayhem we see them endure.
Collette has always been a great actress (not so much "underrated", as so chameleonically good in every role she's given, she just becomes her characters, and slips under the radar of your mind, until you're suddenly struck with the thought of: "Oh yeah! Toni Collette's always been this great!")...
She. Is. BEYOND. EXCEPTIONAL.
Mere words alone cannot convey the depths of sorrow, pain, fury, and fear (both felt and dealt) she is able to portray with that face on her face (#callback!); she just has to be seen to be believed.
And Alex Wolff?
My god... with this one upsettingly heart-breaking performance alone, he has unequivocally out-classed what we've thus far seen of the actorly skills of his brother, Nat.
(Which is kind of mean to say, I know, because it's not as if it's a competition or anything, but... like... have you seen Nat Wolff in the Netflix Death Note? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, all that screaming...)
But now, it's time for me to briefly put the jokes aside, and quit dancing around actually writing about the tip-top utmost reasons why Hereditary resonated with me as much as it did.
Toni Collette's Annie Graham is essentially my mother.
The Graham family's troubled history is essentially my family's troubled history.
Their generational and genetic fears are essentially my generational and genetic fears.
Sure, by comparison, my history and my family tree is nowhere near as dark and violent and paranormally-inflected as the Graham family's history and family tree, because this is a horror film, after all.
But, all the same?
Annie Graham's psychological instability, wild mood swings, emotional abuse, overwrought outbursts of aggressive shouting, all interspersed with these fleeting moments of affection, self-awareness, calm, and humour that only worsen the torture inflicted, as you glimpse the normal person - the normal mother - that she could be?
That was my mum.
And the fear Annie, and her son Peter, feel about potentially inevitably inheriting the genes and/or learned behaviours - the nature and/or the nurture - of those who raised them, passing it on down to those they always wanted to be spared the same negativity they experienced, thus perpetuating the same vicious cycle?
I know my mum was afraid of that - even if she wouldn't admit it to herself, and even though she was already in the throes of the effects of the nature and nurture of her kin, who all shared so many of the same personality traits.
And I know that I am deathly afraid of the possibility that one day, some latent strand of unignited DNA, or some faulty wiring in my brain yet to be sparked, will make me lose touch with reality, or corrupt and erase my memory...
...or that even just the manipulative guilt-guided manner in which I was brought up will make me unintentionally treat someone I love in the same way, thus cementing the cycle's repetition.
I am afraid of whatever my bloodline has made hereditary...
...and thus, I am afraid of Hereditary.