There is something deeply evil about Hereditary. As a film, it has its intellectual downfalls–relying, at times, on genre cliches, and sometimes presenting jump scares in place of earned justifications–but as a visceral experience, A24’s latest indie horror is singularly torturous. The last hour of the movie, a hellish onslaught of the senses, had audience members in the comfy suburban Queens AMC multiplex where I saw the film screaming in shock, with some folks rushing out of the emergency exit in a trail of popcorn and panic, yelling “fuck this!” as the door slammed behind them.
This downright demonic experience had me–a lover of horror and all things demented–covered in a cold sweat, worried that I might have a panic attack. After toiling all night with terrible dreams about clicking noises and naked old pagans, I woke up the next morning wondering if I could, in good faith, recommend this film to my friends and loved ones– it’s affecting, but is it okay to encourage an experience that is likely to rustle up some actual pain?
If you’ve had any experience with death, grief, mental illness, or disturbed family members, this film will no doubt resonate with you. While familiarity in art is usually a good thing, in the case of Hereditary, it is deeply, deeply painful. So it’s not a question of quality when recommending Hereditary to a friend-it feels more like a question of morality.
Perhaps this sense of ethical confusion swirling around the film explains the rising divide between critics and audiences. The movie received high praise from most publications (this one included) and elicited a near-perfect 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, it received an abysmal D+ on Cinemascore and a 59% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes-two polling methods that seek to gather the opinions of casual moviegoers, not critics.
With such praise from the cinema community in the face of these poor audience ratings, it's fair to wonder if there's a massive disconnect the small group of intellectually minded film critics who recommend movies and the vast population of casual moviegoers who actually fill the seats for these films.
It’s no argument that in spite of its torments, the film is exceptionally well executed. A stunning piece of visual poetry that proudly distinguishes itself from the formally mediocre hodgepodge of blockbusters today, there are dazzling, breakout performances from formidable newcomers, Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff, and a masterful performance from Toni Collette, who deserves an Oscar and a back massage for the unprecedented, excruciating anguish she committed to the screen.
Hereditary is moving, with shocking images and conceptually deafening sequences that flow through you-or perhaps I should say, flow within you, possessing your mind and scraping away at your soul throughout the movie’s oppressive 127-minute duration. The ravishing cinematography and meticulously choreographed editing will scorch your eyes. When this modest suburban family begins to self-immolate, you’ll go down in flames with them.
But it’s fair to say that, especially in today’s terrifying sociopolitical climate, perhaps casual moviegoers don’t want watch people burned alive when they go to the movie theater. The past decade has seen the gradual transmogrification from grimdark post-9/11 genre sadsacks like The Dark Knight and Watchmen to happy-go-lucky escapist films like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which even veers into the darkness every now and then). The transition from the dreadfully pessimistic Batman V Superman to the cartoonishly zany Justice League should be enough to show that audiences have been getting sick of sinister stories and want to have some careless fun at the movies again.
Hereditary is quite the opposite of fun. It seeks only to burden the audience, setting us up to hurt from the very start. The film is tragedy upon tragedy, weighing a mountain of stress and grief-ridden supernatural woe onto viewers. At the top of that mountain, where there would normally be some sort of hopeful moral or light in the darkness, Hereditary offers a lifeless, bug-ridden head of dread and ambiguity. Exactly where this movie falters is where more successful indie horror films have succeeded. Better audience-reviewed examples, like The Babadook, while similarly dreadful, offered some small victories for the tortured characters, leaving viewers with a bit of hope on their way out of the theater.
This phenomenon of poorly rated indie horrors is nothing new, though. Cinemascore, which functions as a sort of exit poll that occurs at randomly selected theaters across America, has been dealing with the mystery of failing letter grade horrors for a while now. Many of the F-rated movies in Cinemascores are horror movies; according to Vulture's Kevin Lincoln, movies that don’t exactly live up to the expectations of the genre seem to be first on the chopping block for audiences filling out exit polls:
What these movies have in common is that they take on the cloak of a genre and then refuse to give the audience what they expect from that genre, a feat that Mother! - which was marketed largely as a horror movie - perpetrates gleefully. If CinemaScore’s list of Fs has a major lesson, it’s that audiences do not like to be fooled in this way. (Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes at Night and Robert Eggers’s The Witch are recent examples of this phenomenon as well; both received very positive reviews and then D and C- CinemaScores, respectively, when they turned out to defy the horror genre’s parameters.)
Perhaps this explains the poor audience reception of Hereditary, a movie that, while at times bending to the genre cliches to give us jump scares and spooky creaks in the night, boldly shows a side of horror that is more truthful and immersed in the psychological, rather than the material or the creature-oriented.
Films do need not teach lessons, provide hope, or even deliver joy to its viewers. But a movie must at least live up to what it sets out to do and leave the audience with a little something in return. Hereditary sets out to show us the defiance of a mother who will stop at nothing to put an end to her genealogy’s chain of mental illness. But in the finale, there are no victories-evil simply prevails.
That speaks to both Hereditary's brilliance, and its weakness-and that dichotomy is what may make it a true classic, ranking it among the other hellish legends of filmmaking that put audiences through emotional turmoil. That it could contain the power to pave interdimensional highways and send spirits through the barrel of the projector lens is awe-inspiring, and it distinguishes itself simply because it goes beyond the acceptable. It’s damn near perfect in showing, truthfully, the depths of suffering in the human soul. That’s an astonishing accomplishment, but it’s also agonizing, so it’s not surprising that casual moviegoers would run away from it for dear life. I know I sure did.
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