Squad Talk: Hereditary’s Harrowing Family Drama

hereditary1.png

The buzz about Hereditary has been building ever since the family melodrama made a splash at Sundance. With the film finally debuting in theatres, the AOAS team (including our newest final girl, Gina Freitag) got together to discuss everything from Toni Collette’s rollercoaster-ride performance, the potentially divisive ending and how the film will or won’t be embraced by horror audiences. 

As with all Squad Talks, we dive deep and get into spoiler territory, so beware. (Honestly, you really should go see the film immediately — bookmark us and come back for our hot takes once you’ve seen it!)

Overall Impressions

Joe: I feel like I barely even know where to begin with Hereditary. I spent so much time anticipating the film that it seemed inevitable that the initial screening would be a bit of a letdown. That actually wasn’t the case, though I did immediately want to watch the film again to revisit all of the little things that I missed.

More than any recent horror film, Hereditary feels like a film that demands a minimum of two screenings. I hope that as regular audiences get to see it, the level of technical expertise and craft – by director Ari Aster, the rest of the production team and the actors – doesn’t get eclipsed by discussions about the film’s plot, which I anticipate will be…divisive to say the least. I am curious to see what the rest of you thought on the initial watch.

heredite2

Valeska: I loved it immediately. I did have a few quibbles right off the bat — I wanted there to be a more prolonged ambiguity regarding whether the occurrences were supernatural in nature or relating to mental illness. The film spent a good amount of time in the first act laying out the family history, so it disappointed me that Hereditary showed its hand so quickly in that respect.

But, apart from that, I was floored by the technical expertise and craft that you mentioned. From the very opening scene with its use of miniatures and visual sleight-of-hand (outstanding work), I was enamored with this strange, harrowing, and eminently artful production. The melodrama aspect was as engrossing as the supernatural horror. I felt as much tension waiting for the eventual blow-up between mother and son as the ghostly phenomena — a stand-out sequence for me was the nightmarish conversation between the two during Annie’s bout of sleepwalking, which alluded to a very traumatic incident in their pasts. And, for a film that was so centred on visual artists, I really enjoyed how sound design played such a huge role in the story and in shaping the viewing experience.

I plan to see it again as soon as I can; as Joe said, it’s a film that pretty much demands a second viewing (if not a third). I’m sure I’ll have far more to say about it the second time around, and I anticipate having my appreciation deepen with each future viewing.

Gina: I was definitely thrilled by Hereditary. As someone who has always fixated on miniature things, I was immediately charmed by the implications of the diorama and dollhouse work as it crossed over with the family’s reality, not only as it tied in with the protagonist’s apparent need for control amidst chaos, but in the idea of breaking things down into manageable pieces to better examine and process disturbing things.

I certainly felt the evocations of past horror films also based around family, trauma, and the occult, but I didn’t find that I was too distracted by those – I was more eager to see what the film was going to do with the tension it creates and how it was going to affect me over all. There are so many unsettling images in this movie that will undoubtedly become iconic ones: both quiet, haunting visuals and visceral, gut-wrenching moments. I was really drawn to the figure of Ellen, the grandmother, who we only come to know through characters’ memories and pictures: what feelings and impressions she left behind, who she is revealed to have been. I’m still savouring the lingering impact from the first viewing, but I guarantee it is a movie I will be re-watching soon, and buying a copy of eventually, because I NEED to own this film.

hereditary3.jpg

Alejandra: Valeska took the words right out of my mouth regarding Hereditary’s ambiguous nature. I absolutely loved where it seemed to be going for a large bulk of the movie, but I was a little disappointed for the same reason upon my initial watch. I feel like watching it a second time will help me appreciate it for what it is now that I’m aware of the direction Aster chooses to take it. That’s not to say that I didn’t absolutely love the movie – I thought it was incendiary in how it manifested tension. A lot of the choices Hereditary makes, particularly in the first act, were bold and had an effective pay off.

I know A24 seems to suffer from “scariest-movie-ever” syndrome, but I really think Hereditary is the first movie in years I have lost sleep over. A lot of that can be attributed to the haunting visuals Gina mentions (so much of it has stuck with me for days). I wish I could put my finger on what exactly about the imagery in Hereditary affected me so viscerally, but I’ve been sitting with the movie for a while now and I still can’t find the answer to that. It’s not like we’re uncomfortable with gore around here, so it is more than that. Themes of death and loss, especially the content of that first act, were also really difficult for me to digest, which feels funny to say because this is not uncommon for the genre.

Hopefully watching it a second time will help me to better understand Hereditary’s effect. What I loved most is that it challenges me to think about why I was so uncomfortable, which is something a movie hasn’t done for a long time.

The Ending

Joe: Alright, let’s just jump right into this. As I said off the top, I think that the ending of the film is going to be quite polarizing. The final act of the film is where nearly all of the overtly horrific elements in the film occur and some of that imagery feels absolutely seared into my brain (Collette’s Annie sawing open her own throat while suspended near the ceiling, coupled with that wet sawing sound on the soundtrack is absolutely disgusting and fantastic). Still, I think that the reveal that the film is an elaborate possession/cult/sacrifice film is going to disappoint a large population of the audience – I’m expecting to see lots of complaints about ripping off Rosemary’s Baby or the suggestion that it’s too “obvious” or “conventional.”  Perhaps it’s unsurprising that opening weekend audiences gave the film a “D” CinemaScore, which is…extremely poor. (Be sure to check out Variety’s great piece examining why)

I need to go back and revisit the film a second time to really take in the foundation that Aster lays in the lead-up to the film’s conclusion, but I’m interested to see what other folks thought of the film’s grim, unhappy resolution. Does it satisfy? Is it too dark?

hereditary4.jpg

Valeska: I wasn’t totally in love with the ending, plot-wise, but I did ADORE the jaw-droppingly disturbing and suspenseful minutes leading up to it. The imagery is INTENSE, extraordinarily well-executed, and genuinely harrowing. The camerawork during that final confrontation sequence is exquisite.

Personally, I didn’t find the ending too dark, but I can totally understand why others would and why it would be polarizing. Like Joe, I need to revisit the film before I can really speak in depth about the ending in terms of story — but I will say that I do find myself thinking a lot about several of the scenes leading up to it, and always with a dark feeling of thrill.

Gina: I can see how some people might feel cheated by the ending, if they hoped for something non-supernatural, or if they’re preoccupied with past iterations of similar occult horror film endings. To be fair, I’m not sure how else I would envision another ending for this film, but like I mentioned, the imagery alone leaves a lasting impression for me. I was really taken with how the grief and trauma manifested, and how ultimately, the matriarch’s life choices led to the total evisceration of one family structure in order to instate another, more morbid one. I personally found the ending to be satisfying enough and frankly almost a relief, because after the amount of suffering the family endures, individually and as a unit, I kind of wanted them to be put out of their misery, one way or another. Horror doesn’t tend to wrap things up happily and neatly, and it’s not as though the family was really framed to recover from the ordeal.

hereditary5.jpg

Joe: I don’t know that the film could have any other ending – even without a second viewing to confirm, the outcome for these characters seems very clearly laid out, like little bread crumbs throughout the entire narrative. Audiences who don’t like it simply weren’t paying attention. Still, despite our love of gore and misery, horror audiences are strangely unwilling to go along with unhappy endings and this one is grim AF.

Alejandra: Again, I really agree with Valeska. I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of this ending in terms of plot, but everything leading up to the reveal had me on the edge of my seat, completely entranced. The last few minutes in the treehouse, particularly the way it looked, reminded me so much of the end of Carrie — one of my favorite horror endings of all time.

I just wish it had been less…literal? I think the expository monologue at the end displayed a lack of faith in the audience who just spent two hours coming to their own conclusions because the film purposefully traffics in ambiguity. Still, I really loved spending so much of the movie questioning whether Annie was a reliable protagonist, or if she was sick and behaving irrationally as a result of a lifetime of trauma.

hereditary6.jpg

Performances & Production

Valeska: Toni Collette’s performance is Oscar-worthy. Hands down. And I find Alex Wolff to be an extraordinarily intriguing actor. After seeing him in My Friend Dahmer and now Hereditary, I’m very excited to see the choices he makes in the future. I thought that they were both phenomenal in this film, especially for the material that they were working with. The rest of the cast were pretty pitch perfect as well.

Gina: I was generally struck by the female performances in this film. I will definitely echo the praise for Toni Collette, since this woman can portray such an incredibly complex ‘vulnerable, unravelling, grief-stricken mother’ type who is struggling to navigate her conflicting feelings. Shapiro’s role as the young daughter was understated and curious, and her hollow, surrendered gaze was unnerving, like she was foretelling doom. I found myself waiting to see what Ann Dowd was bringing to the table as the eccentric fellow griever, because if she’s in a film, she will deliver something profoundly eerie.

As much as I enjoyed the dark tones and the thematic inversion of home-like structures (safety and comfort being compromised by disruptive and nightmarish events), I found myself continuously drawn to the sound design, from the gloriously, gristly, sickening sound effects of the gore, to the ominous tongue-clucking of little Charlie.

hereditary7.jpg

Joe: I’ll echo the praise for Collette and Wolff. I was most surprised by Shapiro, who excels in a tough role — with prosthetics to boot! — though I was disappointed to see her killed off so early. This felt a bit like a bait-and-switch considering how prominently she was employed in the film’s marketing and definitely felt like a “gotcha” moment, regardless of how effective that particular scene proved to be.

Alejandra: I am so glad Wolff is receiving some well-deserved praise, especially considering he shares the screen with Collette, who gives a performance I almost don’t think anybody else could have given. I hope he continues to do amazing things; I really believe he has a brilliant career ahead of him.

I don’t know what else can be said about Collette’s performance that hasn’t already been said, but I’ll highlight the scene directly after Charlie’s death when she delivered one of the most bloodcurdling depictions of grief I have ever seen. I knew what I was in store for after that moment.

hereditary8.jpg

Buzz, “Elevated Horror” and Expectations

Joe: The last week or so leading up to Hereditary’s release has been a frustrating one as a number of Twitter threads and advance reviews have begun using my new least favourite term: “elevated horror.” This arbitrary distinguish between horror and elevated horror is simply the latest fad to try and de-legitimize the genre, which is both futile and redundant (imagine an “elevated” romantic-comedy or Western). Still, the way that the film is being discussed, the other horror giants it is being compared to (The Exorcist, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion) and the fact that distributor A24 has a reputation for smart horror films that disappoint fans looking for jump scares and less adult themes makes me wonder how Hereditary will fare in the long run.

My honest opinion: the film is being overhyped and it is doomed to underperform financially at the box office and be considered a disappointment as a result. I think we’re creeping into The Witch territory and the film will go on to cult status and be upheld as exemplary of the genre’s potential in a few years, but in the interim…I think it’s going to suffer from all of the hype.

Valeska: I totally agree. It’s also been laden with the “scariest film ever” label, which has traditionally been a kiss-of-death (see: last year’s Verónica). Mainstream audiences are not going to be happy with what they find here; the focus on visceral grief; the achingly slow burn; the utter hopelessness of the ending; the emotional rawness and complicated familial themes — all of the things that make this film such a brilliant and worthwhile viewing experience for a more niche audience. I agree that Hereditary will be looked back on with with reverence, but I think it’ll likely face an uphill battle for the next little while as the general public sifts through their feelings about it.

hereditary9.jpg

Gina: As with most upcoming horror movies, I purposefully avoid as many reviews as possible. I want to approach the film with curiosity, and I want to be blindsided. But every year, there is a small handful of horror films that really do stand out from the rest, though I also refuse to define them as ‘elevated’ when it really comes down to their ‘staying power’ — how long they linger on the minds of viewers.

I agree that reviewers overuse that ‘scariest film ever’ label; it usually garners an eye-roll from me, too. I can see that the discomfort of the slow burn doesn’t sit well with the average audience, but I think the initial positive reactions the film is getting from its performances, its confrontational nature, its jarring imagery, and arguably its bold decisions, will mean that more people will seek it out while it’s a hot topic, especially after the huge success of other well-made horror. So I am rooting for it to thrive.

I was lucky to have tickets to an advance screening of the film with Aster present for a special Q&A so I know that this sort of uncomfortable content isn’t new for him. I am very curious to see what he’s working on next, and how his work will evolve from here.

Alejandra: Similarly to Gina, I didn’t as much as watch a trailer for this before going into it. I watched the trailer in its entirety after finally having seen Hereditary and I agree with Joe about how the audience will inevitably feel cheated based on expectations.

To be honest, however, I’m not as mad at the “scariest movie ever” label as I am about the “elevated horror” label. I do agree that marketing it that way dooms the movie prematurely when it comes to mainstream audiences, but as horror fans I think we’ve been conditioned to overlook the “scariest movie ever” marketing strategy. Plus, fear is so subjective that Hereditary really might be the scariest movie ever to some people. I, for one, was uneasy all through the next day, and if I think about it too much I still have to peek behind my back.

What did you think of HereditaryShare your thoughts in the comment section or let us know on Twitter or Instagram: @aoas_xx!

Advertisements

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s