Modern horror films seem to be separated into two categories. Cheap, thoughtless, jump scare ridden trash à la the Paranormal franchise, churned out regularly (particularly around Halloween) in an effort to make a quick buck. And the more crafted, “smart” alternative, which rely heavily on subtle cues and psychological twists for their thrills. So where does Hereditary fall on the spooky spectrum?
Well it certainly takes some notes from the latter, more nuanced category. The plot revolves around the struggles of Annie Graham (Toni Collette) after her mother’s death, as well as the relationship with her two children; basic stoner teen Peter (Alex Wolff) and walking creepy child cliché Charlie (Milly Shapiro).
The use of family trauma as a horror plot device, and indeed an overarching metaphor, is nothing new to the genre. The bonds and issues in Hereditary are very reminiscent of those explored in 2014’s Babadook. But where the latter is succinct in its delivery, leaving more room for good ol’ fashioned terror, Hereditary often becomes bogged down in clunky exposition and boring dialogue, particularly in its middle act. This is exacerbated by the generally good, but sometimes wildly off the mark, child actors whose delivery further impacts the audiences’ immersion and therefore their ability to be scared. It is worth noting that Collette is phenomenal throughout, breathing life into even the dullest scenes.
The passable second act of the film is made much worse by the fact that the first is so incredibly well executed. The camera work, a plethora of slow, claustrophobia-inducing pans, is coupled with a fantastically twisted and distorted score which is matched only by the genuinely grotesque and chilling imagery on screen. All of this builds the psychological tension and terror to an almost uncomfortably nerve-racking level. But whereas films such as 2015’s The Witch are able to maintain this kind of tension throughout the film, Hereditary simmers to a disappointing standstill, leaving the viewer waiting for a killer blow. By the time the pay off comes in the final segments of the film, the crescendo moment has passed, and all the previous efforts are for nought.
Hereditary definitely tries to be of the more sophisticated ilk of horror, and at times lives up to its billing. However, some strange choices, clunky exposition and slightly overlong runtime prevent it from fulfilling its potential as a truly great film.