Editor’s Note:This review provides a few integral parts of the movie, a Spoiler Alertis in place before you read through the reivew
It’s no secret that with horror movies these days, it’s more often a miss than a hit. Films of the genre tend to be low budget with a non-stellar cast and a more-absurd-than-usual plot , as it is considered the testing grounds for experimental screenplays, and is often relegated to B-movie status due to its lack of sophistication.
Yet studios still manage to churn them out regularly as horror films have remarkably low costs to make, leading to easy albeit small profits in the box office. But there will be those rare times when a move would strike gold – either through sheer shock value and novelty, or by how well-made it actually is. Hereditary falls under the latter.
The movie starts with an establishing shot of a dollhouse that resembles the main setting of the movie. And ala Ernst Lubitsch‘s The Doll, it cuts seemlessly into the actual shot of the set with the actors in it. Right there, it already establishes a subtle theme. The story begins with a small family grieving the recent death of the grandmother, who was especially close to the granddaughter. The mother struggles with grief as she reveals her side of the family suffered from various mental illnesses, and fears she and her daughter may have them too.
Meanwhile, the son lives a nonchalant life until he inadvertently causes the tragic death of his sister – which drives the mother to spiral further. In her despair, she attempts a seance which goes horribly wrong. She tries to set things right by trying to figure out how to release the malevolent spirit of her daughter, only to find out that the grandmother was a member of a cult, and that her family may be falling victim to their devices.
Tragically, they are picked off one by one Grand Guignol style, and the demon that the cult worships ends up possessing the son’s body as its own.
One of the beauties of the film is that even though the premise isn’t exactly new – demonic possession, cult hauntings – yet it manages to portray itself like these story elements are being properly conveyed to the public audience for the very first time. Many would say that the movie drags, but I find it quite encapsulating that it lets the audience simmer in with the tension, anxiety, and trauma with the characters.
You see, for me, the movie is less about the horror – with all the scares and supernatural aspects being just a premise but not being secondarily important at the same time. The best part about it is even if it contains a number of graphically sensitive imagery, such as a very intense garrote scene, it doesn’t linger on it or make it a spectacle. It only gives you enough time to process the grotesqueness of something before leading you back to the fear or pain of the characters.
The film is still majorly a psychological film, and it dwells a lot on how heavy and dragging it feels for people burdened by trauma and loss. One major theme they repeatedly visit is how most people are imprisoned by “fate”. Early on, there was foreshadowing by the mention of Greek philosoher Sophocles’ plays and how its characters are “hopeless cogs in a cruel and horrible machine.” It reflects on how life and fate is already predetermined and the most one can do is live through it – like a self-aware actor on stage.
This is mostly reinforced by the constant yet subtle imagery of dollhouses – even going so far as to angle the camera to make scenes on set to look like dioramas. At first I thought the title was only referring to how the mental illnesses (as well as the problems that come with them) was passed down the family, but now I also came to understand that it could also be interpreted as how the actions of the older generations leave lasting consequences for the younger generation to deal with, and it is the gravity of those marks that trap them – making them so close, choking, and inescapable, it could almost be considered genetic
The only real con I see is its very arthouse treatment. While it is the very thing that makes it special, it feels rather exclusive against casual horror movie fans as it requires a bit of patience and insight to appreciate. But it is a nice trend to see movies like Hereditary, It Follows, and A Quiet Place as we have to admit, the horror movie scene is becoming rather stale and campy – jumpscares are becoming too predictable, stories are now rehashed tropes, gore porn is mindlessly used. While it is these very things that may appeal to a lot of horror fans, it feels rather refreshing to see that the genre can still be taken seriously even by artful and dramatic professionals.