Like comedy, or porn, there’s a hyper-specific yardstick for success in horror movies that goes beyond simply enjoying the experience or finding it meaningful in some way. The hardcore horror heads, the folks that rush out to see the new horror movie on opening weekend, seem to be all about getting their rocks off: did it scare me? For some, it’s the only question that matters.
That fact alone seems to account for the apparent divide between snoots and the great unwashed when it comes to the more arthouse-approved horror movies, like It Follows or The Babadook. Which were more about using the genre to convey some real-life horror, like teen sexuality or parenthood, respectively, than about the sheer amplitude and frequency of the scares. As a non-horror head, that suited me just fine. It Follows ruled. Keep flaming me, dickheads, I’m re-posting.
Hereditary opens like it’s going to play out much the same way, paced more like art horror than Saw (it was even filmed in Park City, Utah, the same town in which it premiered, at the Sundance Film Festival), but the longer it goes along the more you realize it’s something different. Hereditary has the trappings of art-horror but a punk rock soul. It doesn’t have the pacing, the quick cuts, or the jump scares of multiplex horror, but writer/director Ari Aster’s purpose isn’t to bend genres, simply to maintain unpredictability. Which is, after all, utilitarian. Not knowing what you’re watching just makes the scares work better. It’s slow at first, but only because Aster is painstakingly building a foundation of realism, where anything could be scary.
Hereditary stars Toni Collette as a classic art horror haunted mom, who goes to a grief support group to mourn her recently departed mother, and talks about her family’s history of mental illness — the brother who committed suicide, the father who starved himself to death. Then we meet her daughter, Charlie, a classic multiplex weird kid, a middle schooler with a cleft palate who sees ghosts and squirrels away severed animal heads in her giant filthy hoody. Are we watching an art horror about the very real terror of mental illness or an escapist scare flick about a demonic child? (As I like to say, all multiplex horror movies are either about a haunted house or a creepy little kid). The answer is less important than the fact that we’re asking.
You’ll do some thinking as you watch Hereditary, but ultimately, Aster just wants to scare the shit out of you. By the time you realize what it’s doing, you’ve been white-knuckling it for 25 minutes and the credits are about to roll, which is the way it should be. It’s more like a remixed, repackaged haunted house/creepy little kid flick that changes your pacing expectations, both withholding scares where you’d normally expect them and throwing them in where you don’t. It’s both beautiful enough for the arthouse and terrifying enough for the multiplex, a slowed down, amped up, chopped and screwed suburban grotesque.
Aster impresses both technically and conceptually. Strictly on a visual level, he squeezes more unease just out of his actors’ faces than just about any movie I can remember. Toni Collette channels unforgettable horror faces like Sissy Spacek and Shelly Duvall, and there are times, when she goes from concerned, reasonable mom to unhinged headcase in a split second, where I legitimately wondered whether the change to her face and voice was a special effect — it’s that abrupt and terrifying. Milly Shapiro’s Charlie, meanwhile, is a singularly creepy presence, and Alex Wolff is a perfect foil as the bug-eyed, bushy-browed straight man, who’s so effective at seeming haunted that you hardly care that he looks nothing like either of his movie parents (Collette and Gabriel Byrne).
Meanwhile, Aster scatters clues and runes and strange MacGuffins throughout the background the whole movie, where you get the sneaking suspicion something will become important just by the way he shoots it.