This post contains fairly mild spoilers for the film Hereditary. If you hate spoilers, look away!
As a pretty avid horror viewer, I’ve been pretty excited about the release of Hereditary for quite a while. Besides A Quiet Place, which I thought was fantastic, I haven’t seen a good horror film in the cinema for quite a long time, and the reviews I’d seen leading up to the release were all very positive.
That in mind, I went in with fairly high expectations, and coming out I can see pretty well why the reviews are so torn – most viewers seem fairly disappointed, and most critics are raving. The film was certainly great from an artistic perspective, and it told a story without spoon-feeding you what was going on, which is something the horror genre sorely lacks in my view – though I feel it’s quite a borderline horror film and does coast more towards being a mystery drama, which is what Google reports as its genre. Unfortunately, and I’m not sure if this hurt it for all viewers or just me, it was one I feel you have to put serious concentration into, but which doesn’t necessarily invite that throughout.
For example, there were scenes where very serious issues were brought up, but in which the dialog was less than stellar and delivered slightly ineffectually. In fairness, the most memorable of these occurred in a dream, so I do wonder if this was intentional on some level, however it caused the audience to laugh, which broke the tension the scene had been otherwise building.
Actually, audience reaction was a problem throughout. Perhaps it’s my fault for heading over at 7PM on a weekday night, but the cinema had groups of people who laughed during tense moments, made audible jokes, and imitated the characteristic tongue click of the daughter. This was pretty distracting and caused me to lose focus on moments which, in retrospect, were important to pick up on to get the full experience and piece together what was going on during the film. I’ve read a few reviews that mentioned similar problems, and think that in part this is enabled by the film – the aforementioned clicking is repeated just enough to make it memorable (intentionally, of course), and there were plenty of slow, dramatic pans of the camera enabling people to take full advantage of loudly copying this in the cinema.
I’ve focused on this so much because I don’t think other suspenseful films suffer from this problem nearly as badly. In A Quiet Place, for example, the tense scenes really are edge-of-your-seat moments, with a constant fear that any second could be the last for the characters — the precedent of serious danger for this is set up immediately at the beginning of the film, which ensures the audience has no misconception as to how dangerous and tense the setting is: there’s real danger from the start. In contrast, there were many tense scenes in Hereditary which didn’t have a very strong payoff. I don’t think this, in and of itself, is a bad thing, but it can definitely lead to some of the tension being taken less seriously.
Small spoilers follow
Putting that aside, the story was pretty great, but I think the characters could’ve done with some work. The father was the cliché supernatural skeptic who, despite having evidence placed directly in his lap, refuses to believe anything out of the ordinary is going on. The mother was the cliché main character who alternates between seeming fairly put together and completely fallen apart. I think her character was one of the more believable and realistic, but with scenes leading me to not know for sure whether she was a protagonist or an antagonist, it was hard to empathise with her. Altogether, the cast had very few empathetic characters – the son and daughter both lacked a strong personality and seemed detached, the mother and father felt too predictable, and there weren’t enough recurring cast members to cast them against, besides a few students who aren’t fleshed out beyond the fact that they take drugs. That said, Joan, one of the supporting characters, who appears about halfway through the film, is played brilliantly and was one of the better characters I felt – it would’ve been great if she’d had more screentime.
To be clear, I don’t think these characters on their own are written badly or lazily – these clichés are such because they’re, I imagine, fairly realistic reactions to what the characters are going through – but it made too many of the suspenseful scenes too predictable and hence detracted from a lot of the film for me.
More major spoilers follow
Focusing on the story, there were a few issues which really stuck out to me. The first was that around mid-way through, the son accidentally kills his sister while frantically driving her to the hospital while apparently high on marijuana by swerving past a post when she has her head out the window. When they move onto the police investigation of this, the believability was ruined for me – because there… wasn’t one? They have a scene for the funeral, so time has definitely progressed sufficiently enough so that there should’ve been one, but apparently this film exists in a universe where manslaughter and reckless & intoxicated driving aren’t crimes worth investigating.
Another scene that bothered me, albeit to nowhere near the same degree, is when the mother’s sleeve lit on fire and not only did she only realise about ten to twenty seconds after the fire started, but she then attempted to put it out by ineffectually brushing part of the sleeve that wasn’t visibly on fire. Sure, it turns out that the fire was supernatural in some way and probably hence not extinguishable directly, but she didn’t know this at the time and I feel she reacted very unnaturally given that.
I feel like a film like this works best when it’s got you concentrating on the edge of your seat, and ruining immersion even for a second can throw the whole atmosphere out the window. Despite this, I think the film really did redeem itself with a fantastically presented story – it’s been a while since I’ve seen a horror which had a story you really had to pay attention for, and I really think it deserves props for that. I’ve certainly focused more on the negatives in this review, but I think that putting these aside it’s definitely worth watching, and one of the better films I’ve seen recently.
All things considered, if I had to rate it, I’d give it around a 4/5, but I would definitely recommend viewing it in a quieter showing or, in future, in your own home. I think that in a better setting, the film would be a lot more suspenseful and enjoyable, but that without a respectful audience, its tension is severely detracted from and a lot of the power of the film is lost.