Getting a scary movie right is difficult task. There needs to be just the right combination of psychological and physical terror. Too much mood and atmosphere without any screams can cause a film to feel slow and lifeless. Too many jump scares without proper build up, can feel gimmicky and simplistic to the audience.
I was very eager to see Hereditary after reading so many glowing reviews declaring it “the scariest film in years.” Did it live up to the hype? Oh, yes. And then some. It had me both cowering in my seat and jumping out of it. Observing people on the way out of the theatre, there was a consensus of stunned faces and several variations of the same question posed, “What the hell just happened?”
To keep things spoiler-free I am not going to dive too deeply into the plot, other than to say Hereditary is about a family dealing with loss – loss of family, loss of innocence, loss of sanity. Like the very best of examples of the genre, the film makes telling observations about the real world: it is just as much about the difficult and tangled web of family relations, as any fictional horror experience. No family is without its demons. We all live in haunted houses.
The acting in the film is extraordinary. Toni Collette (Mother), Alex Wolff (Son) and Milly Shapiro (daughter) each carry different scenes. The three characters they create are equally compelling and transfixing.
The crafting of the film is also striking. The camera often focuses on the faces of the characters, leaving much of the terror just off screen – which only makes things more frightening. The use of strange angles and disturbing jump cuts evokes a real sense of uncertainty and shows the filmmakers’ eye for detail.
There are several unexpected moments in the movie that play with our expectations of what is going to happen, only to pull the rug out (quite violently) from under our feet. While there are clues about what is going to happen, nothing is telegraphed or predictable.
I did find the final conclusion a little bit disappointing, but I think that is mostly due to the amazing quality of the rest of the film. The hardest thing for any good horror film is to have an ending that matches the expectations and atmosphere that it sets. In this case, Hereditary set itself a ridiculously high bar.
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