Most horror movies can be boiled down to a few basic plot devices. The main one that people are most familiar with is the concept of othering. Basically, the things that we understand the least tend to be the ones that scare us the most. It’s why we almost never see the shark in “Jaws,” or why Jason covers his face with a hockey mask, or why the xenomorph is given so little backstory in “Alien.” Conversely, this is why the subsequent “Alien” sequels (sans James Cameron’s gothic action masterpiece) tended to have diminishing returns. The more they fleshed out what these aliens really were, the more concrete – -and thereby impersonal – -the horror they brought forth became.
“Hereditary” has its fair share of othering. The horror movie tropes in it revolves around bizarre rituals and supernatural concepts that maintain their fear factor because of how strange and bizarre they can be. But plot elements like these are nothing new. They pop up in “The Exorcist.” They manifest in Rosemary’s Baby. They rear their ugly heads in “The Shining.” “Hereditary” doesn’t horrify because of the things that go bump in the night. The true fear that stems from this movie comes from the ideas it represents and just how deep those ideas cut to the heart of the things that we hold most dear to us.
“Hereditary” is the type of horror film that will ask for an unusual level of patience from its audience. For much of the film was more about how grief can affect a family as opposed to ghouls and monsters. Director Ari Aster knows the difference between the generic nuclear units presented by typical horror films and the living, breathing, relatable qualities that a well-written family can bring forth in a film. The little moments in the character’s interactions spoke volumes. The passive-aggressive back and forth between mother (Toni Collette) and teenage son (Alex Wolff) felt so cringingly relatable. And the awkwardly caring relationship between brother and sister (Milly Shapiro) struck such a familiar chord for anyone who’s experienced a similar sibling dynamic.
And then there was the dinner table scene. Everybody knows just how quickly a family’s dining table can turn into a battlefield. And the progression of said argument was so gradually done that when Toni Collette finally exploded (in a scene-stealing performance), it felt like a stick of dynamite went off in my gut. If anything, it reminded me of how cruel we can be to the ones we love.
The committed nature of these performances further cemented the film’s strong themes about family. Toni Collette reminds us just how much of a force of nature she can be. She’s so much more than the shallow scream queen that usually shows up in these types of movies. The fear she shows in this movie feels like it comes from a real, raw place, as opposed to it being the result of an artificial shriek. Alex Wolff is another great standout here. He collides into his role like a football player with a death wish, ditching the brooding, macho sensibility that male actors usually bring to horror films for something much more visceral. When he’s terrified, he really screams. When he’s experiences tragedy, he really cries. Interestingly enough, such an emotional performance from a teenage boy actually drew a few snickers from my audience. Wonder what that says about us.
Aster places so much weight and emphasis on these relationship dynamics because he knows that the true terror of the film relies on them. The fantastical elements of “Hereditary” never really scared me. Instead, the film’s themes about family are what really shook me to my core. “Hereditary” is, at the end of the day, about how fragile our familial units can be. Aster pulls back our viewpoints to expose the fragile structures of our closest and most necessary relationships, just like his camera pulls away from a suburban household to reveal a rickety dollhouse. The film’s first two acts weaken the foundation of blood-relationships with the precision of a surgeon so that when the third act comes around, it can demolish it with one full swing of a sledgehammer. Under the surface of a fright fest is a family tragedy that’s hell bent on showing just how easily we can destroy the ones that we love. “Hereditary” did more than scare the crap out of me. It broke my heart.