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Disturbing, terrifying and genuinely scary is how critics are describing horror film Hereditary. Audiences disagree. So why is critical and popular opinion so split?
This divide is not a new phenomenon. Ari Aster’s chilling directorial debut is just one of a number of films that have split critics and audiences.
Hereditary focusses on the tragedies that befall a family following the death of an elderly relative. While the film starts off with a drama of grief, the genre soon shifts. Classical horror tropes are readily subverted, with drama taking over where loud music and dimly lit corridors would usually sit.
The composition of the film on a technical level is ‘crafty’, using the intricate miniature models that matriarch Annie (Toni Collette) slaves over as part of the actual sets the characters inhabit. The point is to unsettle the viewer, something the score also achieves with a foreboding hum that drones in the background.
Audiences in America have rated the film a lowly D+ on CinemaScore, but critics have universally praised the film, giving it four- and five-star reviews.
Critics are seemingly tired of the repeated jump scares favoured by modern horror directors. Here’s the trailer for Hereditary, which gives little away in terms of the plot and what spoilers you think you spot are actually well-placed misdirections.
Cinemagoers love being tricked by way of twists, but they hate being fooled. Think back to the case of a ticket buyer who wanted to sue the producers of Ryan Gosling’s low-fi drama Drive (2011) on the basis that the film “bore very little similarity to a chase, or race action film … having very little driving in the motion picture”.
Although an extreme example, the case against that film for not living up to its trailer is not an uncommon complaint. Oscar-winning boxing movie Million Dollar Baby (2004) was another film that flipped the script by taking the action out of the ring and into an intensive care unit where the central characters were faced with making a life-changing decision.
Hereditary’s tone is actually consistent with its trailer, but the issue comes from where the film ends up going. Things you don’t see coming happen early on to characters, and that’s a big shock to many.
Reviewing the film in The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw commented on Colette’s “outstanding” turn, describing it as a “terrific, hypnotic performance as a harried mother facing down family evil”.
It’s the family drama element that may also prove to be another issue for audiences. Hereditary deals with trauma and bereavement in remarkable detail, with one scene in particular delivering an emotional hammer blow that stays with you long after the film ends. After another tragedy, the reveal of what has happened is seen almost entirely through Peter’s (Alex Wolff) physical emotions as the camera focusses on his face. The heartbreaking screams from Annie, which are heard in the distance, are a primeval roar of anguish that cause discomfort to everyone watching.
Seeing pain in this detail, in what is still ostensibly a horror movie, is an unexpected experience. The intention is to disorientate us, and that’s just what happens. The comparison we can make is to some of the genre films audiences have raved about recently. Both IT (2017) and The Conjuring series feature death and subsequent grief, but are played for more traditional scares. The consequences of tragedy rarely play out in a believable manner in these sorts of films – the aim is to expedite the next moment of terror.
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In Hereditary, the fear feels real. The reactions are relatable. The trauma is at times excruciating to watch.
The final point of contention is the finale itself. Other films, such as Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007), have ended on a bleak note, but Hereditary opts for downbeat and confusing. There are more questions posed than answered by the end, but one thing everybody knows walking out of the cinema is that this is not a neatly wrapped happy ending.
Hereditary challenges what we expect from a horror film, handing hard-bitten critics plenty of ammunition for think pieces. Not for the first time, the cinemagoer is less impressed.
Hereditary is on general release now.