At this point, anytime a horror movie receives universal praise from critics, that means one of two things: Either it’s piggybacking off a hot button sociopolitical issue (why, hello there, Get Out) or it’s some artsy suspense movie that considers itself too intellectual and too artistic to be regarded as a lowly genre picture (The VVitch, your table is waiting.) Well, Hereditary is a much ballyhooed horror movie that you can safely say is built to the tastes of critics instead of the aggregate American moviegoer. As evident by the movie’s Metacritic score in the high 80s and its Cinemascore of D+, there’s clearly a rift between the barons of high culture and America’s low culture, popcorn-and-Milk Duds-munching masses on whether the movie is high quality cinema or pretentious Hollywood bullcrap — and the final product, unfortunately, seems to be leaning more towards the latter than the former.
A self-avowed horror junkie, Ari Aster’s feature-length debut is the epitome of a fanboy production. Instead of formulating his own vision and coming up with his own take on the tried-and-true supernatural drama motif, his movie is a sickeningly reverential tribute to all of the grand lions of mainstream ‘70s and ‘80s horror. We’ve got creepy kiddos plucked directly out of The Exorcist and The Omen, the Satanic paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby, the telekinesis tomfoolery of Poltergeist, the dysfunctional family melodrama of The Amityville Horror, the subconscious parental trepidations from Pet Sematary and the Grand Guignol guts and gore of Hellraiser, with an undercurrent of existential, pagan-influenced hokum pulled out of The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now pretty much carrying the movie scene-to-scene. Basically, the entire movie feels like the horror section of a Blockbuster video store in 1994 synthesized into a single narrative — and one that takes itself far too seriously, at that.
Even the casting in Hereditary feels woefully familiar. Once again, Toni (The Sixth Sense) Collette finds herself playing caretaker to a troubled kid and getting herself sucked into the supernatural, while veteran character actor Gabriel (End of Days, Stigmata, Ghost Ship) Byrne plays the proverbial Doubting Thomas who wonders if he should’ve sent his wife to the loony bin about 20 minutes into the movie. Rounding out the cast is Alex Wolff (the main character from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) as the apathetic, pot-addicted despondent teenage son and Milly Shapiro (making her film debut) as the special-needs daughter who seems to be harboring some very dark thoughts.
Of course, this ain’t Ordinary People or Kramer vs. Kramer, so nobody addresses their underlying problems by doing things non-idiots would do, like see a counselor when their kid starts scissoring the heads off birds or maybe call the police when headless corpses just start showing up in the attic. Instead, Aster sucks the audience into a whirlpool of psychosis, where you’re never sure if what’s happening on screen is “real” or nightmare, the work of some otherworldly presence or mere coincidence. And you get tricked so many times that you simply stop caring about the main narrative as a whole, since you just assume whatever’s happening in the movie is just going to be negated by a twist ending hoisted upon the audience in the final five minutes of the movie (spoiler alert: which, you guessed it, is exactly what happens in grand finale of Hereditary.)
Even the title of the movie turns out to be a bait and switch, with a seemingly major subplot about the hereditary nature of mental illness getting dumped for a wholly unimaginative devil worship thematic. You think the movie will become about deep-seated family animosities manifesting them symbolically as demons after a HUGE plot twist about a third of the way through the movie, but nope — Aster abandons that far more intriguing dynamic for a far less interesting and involving story about literal demons.
Of course, there are some good things about Hereditary. The cinematography is outstanding, and the acting, for the most part, is pretty solid throughout. But so much of the movie feels ported over from other movies — the ceiling-crawling from The Exorcist III, the familial distrust from Society, the fear of maternal inadequacy from The Babadook, the, disjointed nothing-is-as-it-seems aura of Jacob’s Ladder — that it never really seems to take on an identity of its own.
As it turns out, Flavor Flav from Public Enemy already wrote the perfect review for Hereditary 30 years ago — sorry kids, but when it comes to Hereditary’s highfalutin reviews, whatever you do, don’t believe the hype.
Alright, let’s run down the highlights, why don’t we? We’ve got three dead bodies. Two exposed female breasts. Full frontal male nudity. One dead bird. One dead dog. Heads roll. Gratuitous marijuana smoking. Gratuitous seance scenes. Gratuitous self harm using a school desk. Senseless violence committed against a diorama. Possession fu. Immolation fu. Anaphylactic shock fu. And the thing more or less responsible for this movie existing in the first place … some really on the nose foreshadowing fu.
Starring Toni Collette as the stressed out mom who has no idea why her kids don’t like her (surely, it has nothing to do with that one time she doused them in lighter fluid while they were sleeping, right?); Gabriel Byrne as the skeptical dad doing his best Donald Sutherland impersonation throughout the movie; Alex Wolff as the teenage son who has more bong hits than dialogue; and Milly Shapiro as the daughter, who has a knack for making demonic totems out of Altoid cans and really can’t be trusted with a pair of scissors.
Written and directed by Ari Aster, who, if we’re lucky, might have an idea of his own for his next movie.
Granted, your mileage may vary, but as far as I’m concerned, Hereditary is nothing more than another B-tier genre flick that unwisely thinks it’s too good to be called what it really is … which, in this case, is hardly anything besides another ho-hum Hollywood horror flick masquerading as arthouse cinema.
WICKED RATING: 5/10
Director(s): Ari Aster
Writers(s): Ari Aster
Stars: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro
Release Date: June 8, 2018
Studio/Production Co: PalmStar Media/A24
Length: 127 minutes
Subgenre: Psychological thriller, demonic possession