My favorite genre of fiction, in books and stories and movies and probably even television shows, is horror. I love horror. I watch horror movies all the time. I stay up late after my wife goes to bed so that I can watch more horror movies, even though it means that I sleep terribly. My worry with Hereditary was that it’d be a punishment reel, a clumsy metaphor, or a vaguely-horror-ish but mostly grueling and tense tale of family trauma. That was not the case. It is horror. Whatever else it might also be, it is for sure a horror movie, and it’s the most terrifying horror movie I’ve ever watched.
I saw it Tuesday in an empty theater, and my brain is now a rattled mess. My hands were shaking on the walk to the car after it was over, and at several points during the last third of the movie I had to stop myself from sprinting out of the theater. I’ll try hard not to spoil anything, but know that this movie deploys every good horror trick in the book, with ruthless, relentless glee, all the way to the very end.
All stories come from somewhere, but a story told especially well obliterates all its origins and symbols behind the sheer thrill of exploring its plot points. If you’re telling a story around a campfire and your listeners have the bandwidth to wonder what is he really talking about right now, you are a bad storyteller. Horror movies can also be about Big Ideas, but most of the very good ones—The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Witch—are so good at telling their linear stories of things happening that you don’t necessarily need to trouble yourself with whatever Big Ideas might be there for the assembling. The Witch ripped my dick off—if someone came along later and told me actually The Witch is about the puritanical lineage of our ongoing oppression of pubescent female sexuality I’d be like huh, hey, remember when the old witch lady ate the fucking goat? She made a baby into chunky red butter and an evil goat killed a guy, and sorry that was a little distracting, you know?
I bring that up because Hereditary is so insanely frightening, so overwhelmingly terrifying, that there is no space left in my brain to even come up with a funny fake headline for a pretentious think piece about its symbolism. Some of what Hereditary is about is baggage and the destructive force of inherited trauma, but the plot is tight and propulsive enough, and the dread is so palpable, that it preempted and resisted and obliterated in realtime whatever feeble attempts I might’ve made to retreat to the calmer headspace of cohering its themes into some Important Observation About Families or Motherhood or Nature Versus Nurture or even Undiagnosed Psychological Disorders. The Babadook, by way of comparison, is a fine and frightening movie, but if you found its themes and emotional framework a little too front and center, you will have no such issues with Hereditary. It presents complex emotional circumstances, and there’s plenty of psychology to mine, but first and foremost it is very much about fucked-up, frightening things happening, like any good campfire yarn.
Hereditary does traffic in extreme horror, here and there, but those moments are mostly punctuation points amid exquisitely rendered sequences of almost unbearable terror. It’s helpful to think of it this way: horror is seeing; terror is not wanting to see. When Hereditary isn’t showing something horrifying, it’s slow-burning an atmosphere of escalating dread, using a bag of tricks so familiar to horror-film aficionados that it would be charming if it weren’t so cruelly effective. You’ll have no trouble spotting the influence of The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby. The way it trains the viewer via clever timing and framing to search every inch of the screen at all times will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the Insidious brand of mildly cheesy, meticulously constructed, undeniably formulaic supernatural horror.
But where Insidious and The Conjuring and their various sequels and offshoots are sort of thrill-a-minute popcorn flicks whose scares play out like darkly lit practical jokes, Hereditary is a genuinely upsetting story that, like The Witch, depicts explicit, unimaginable traumas that cannot be reversed. Toni Collette plays the emotional core of a family coming apart in spectacular fashion, under siege by forces well beyond their combined powers to even identify, let alone resist. The characters’ psychology is also a carefully manipulated variable, and the effect is a movie that keeps you guessing along the way just how much of what you’re seeing might be imagined. Those James Wan flicks keep their fundamental breeziness by more or less keeping the families intact, and utilizing those families’ simple virtues and some hope for a return to normalcy as a buoy amid all that dread. Hell, even The Shining and The Exorcist offer a kind of compromised relief at the end—at least there are innocents, and they can be spared. The family in Hereditary is fracturing and straining under old pressures and buried traumas before the real shit even hits the fan, and when things finally do go sideways the pivot is so nightmarishly explicit and brutal as to obliterate any hope that the situation is salvageable.
While that’s all awful enough all on its own, there’s also the ominous and increasingly undeniable suggestion of malevolent supernatural forces to sow distrust between the characters, and also between the story and the audience. In a weird way, the possibility that the events on screen were being manipulated and conjured by actual demonic forces wound up providing a kind of emotional anchor: I can’t save these people, but I can at least hope that all this hellish misery really is beyond their control. In a way it preserved for them the possibility of a kind of redemption, or salvation. That, ultimately, was less a theme of the movie than it was a lifeline for my sanity—it’s amazing how frayed my nerves were as the movie lingered on faces filled with terror and silhouettes lurking in darkened corners.
The story of this family’s grueling and violent dissolution, after every story of more mundane, reality-based family dissolution has already been told several times over, would be an exercise in thankless punishment without a compelling anchor in the supernatural to make it interesting. In Hereditary, the supernatural is deployed carefully but explicitly, among other things girding the movie against any frustration I might’ve otherwise felt towards the erratic, troubling developments of the family members’ individual story arcs. Yes, they often behave irrationally and destructively, but it is also evident that they might be up against something alien and profoundly indifferent to their suffering, and their various failings never come close to violating or disrupting those terms. Collette is brilliant and terrifying as a woman with a powerfully fucked-up psyche, and Gabriel Byrne is terrific as a grounded husband struggling to provide a stabilizing presence in an increasingly volatile household, but even without those nuanced performances the movie presents the possibility of actual fucking demons as a backdrop for every explosive exchange.
As I mentioned, classics like The Exorcist and The Shining allow the viewer to exhale some of the accumulated angst before the end of the movie. That’s very much not the case here. Hereditary ratchets up the horror all the way to its indescribably strange ending. When the credits rolled, the relief I felt wasn’t in how the movie ended, but rather that I had survived long enough to exit the theater, whereupon I immediately called my wife for emotional support. But it’s also true that the ending, which is perhaps the darkest and most insane sequence of the whole cursed movie, is also the story’s most exhilarating moment. It has that trait vaguely in common with some of its genre progenitors, but to name them would be to rub right up against spoiling Hereditary’s bananas ending. Suffice to say, the movie is skilled enough in its storytelling to keep the viewer always unsure of the reliability of whatever perspective is being depicted, and though that delicate touch isn’t necessarily abandoned in the ending sequence—what qualifies as a conclusion to the film’s bonkers narrative arc—it is so tangible and specific and specifically horrifying as to render any question of its meaning superfluous. All I know is what I saw, but I know what the hell I saw! It was almost more than my shredded brain could handle, just an explosion of madness and depravity and balls-out horror, as far beyond my capacity for sober comprehension as Cthulhu marching through my backyard. There isn’t enough bandwidth in the universe to make more of it than that.