As much as I love horror, it takes a specific combination of certain elements in order for it to scare me. For instance, I don’t find demonic or supernatural stuff very scary. While I can acknowledge that The Exorcist is one of the finest horror films of all time, it never left a lingering effect on me that something like The Omen, which deals with similar subject matter. It’s not just the content, but how it’s presented, and how that presentation is brought to life by the perfect mixture of tone, atmosphere, storytelling, cinematography, music, and much, much more. It takes a lot to make a horror film really stick with me.

When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family passes away, it’s now up to Annie (Toni Collette) to start taking responsibility for her family. As time goes on and Annie tries to come to terms with her grief, information about her mother’s mysterious past starts coming to light. This mysterious past has a dark side, however, as Annie and her family start experiencing disturbing hallucinations, nightmares, and other creepy phenomena. Could this apparent evil actually be Hereditary? 

When I first saw the trailer for Hereditary, the first thing I noticed was it was being released by A24, who also distributed The VVitch: A New England Folktale and It Comes At Night. Both of these films were incredibly well received by critics and the horror community, but general audiences felt alienated and tricked, as the marketing grossly misrepresented these films as more traditional horror fare. A24 is primarily a distributor who picks up smaller, independent films from festivals and releases them to a wider audience. When the Hereditary trailer bore their logo and critics quotes claiming it to be “this generation’s The Exorcist“, I knew the exact same thing would happen. The fast paced, intense trailer that shows all of the crazy horror movie moments would get audiences in the seats, but when they have to sit through a glacially paced character drama without jump scares, they end up confused and frustrated. 

I don’t mind slow-paced films at all, though, as long as the pacing compliments the story the film is trying to tell. Since I’m wise to A24’s marketing tricks, I knew this would be more of a dark family drama with horror elements throughout. That’s perfectly fine, as I love this recent trend of more character driven horror, but they’re still horror movies that need to have all of the horror movie stuff. With Hereditary, all of the characters and themes kept me engrossed, but all of the horror elements fell completely flat. From the opening frame, I felt like I was going to adore this film. It has a fantastically grim atmosphere and sense of dread, all maximized by excellent, yet unsettling, cinematography. There’s a palpable sense of dread that you can’t shake at first, but as the 127-minute runtime dragged on, that dread slowly dissipated for me. There are a lot of creepy and cool horror film ideas here, but they all don’t coherently make sense within the context of the film. It really felt like writer/director Ari Aster had a bunch of horror movie ideas but didn’t have an actual movie to surround them with. Some of these ideas worked, but most of them just left me confused and questioning what the film was really going for. 

It’s the main story about how Annie and her family handle these new revelations about their family tree where the film truly shines. It’s a fascinating exploration on how someone experiences grief, especially when they have such a traumatic past and mental illnesses. The most uncomfortable I felt during the whole film was when something incredibly tragic happens to the family and we experience that pain in one of the most realistic and heart wrenching scenes I’ve seen in quite some time. When this plot development happened, I was in actual awe for a good few minutes, an effect a film hasn’t had on me for quite a while. It’s a shame that awe comes in the first half hour, as that height isn’t reached again for the rest of the film. I liked that the story was unpredictable and went in unexpected directions, but it really affected the pacing, as it felt there were just too many elements at play, none of them given the proper room to breathe. 

As Aster’s short films have shown, he has a great grasp at tone and atmosphere, but the ideas aren’t all fully realized. This is especially evident during the last half hour, where it seems like he threw everything at the wall, no matter how sticky it may have been. When everything was wrapping up, I was thinking, “This is really what this has been leading up to the whole time?” I was captivated by the story, themes, and Toni Collette’s astonishing performance throughout, but the resolution and incoherent nature of the last act left a lot to be desired. This could have been helped by tightening up the pacing in some scenes, as I felt it was unnecessarily long. This may have ended up making the film more confusing, though. After the first half hour, it felt like there wasn’t as much narrative thrust, and without a clear grasp of knowing the progression of the story, I was actually kind of bored during the end. It’s just so slow for the first 90 minutes, then suddenly ramps up and goes off the rails. Since the film already lost me by the climax, I found it hard to be in suspense, or truly care. 

Although all of the horror elements didn’t fully come together for me, Hereditary joins films like The VVitch: A New England Folktale and The Babadook in the modern pantheon of slow-burn, character-based horror. Featuring Toni Collette in a career best performance, it’s a disturbing exploration of grief and mental illness, with some truly haunting imagery shown through immersive cinematography, with a tense atmosphere to tie it all together. The slow pace and lack of cohesiveness won’t make this film stick with me like some others, but it’s an admirable effort from a debut filmmaker who clearly has a lot of imagination. Let’s just hope this imagination has more of a direction in the future. 


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