Geeky Cinephile Musings…
I don't pontificate, I blather.

You are alone. You are totally alone.

hereditary-768x536

HEREDITARY

Warning: spoiler alert for this film and A Quiet Place.

 

Ever the horror fanatic, I have become so incredibly jaded about horror films made in this century.

I know, right?? Sigh.  It’s like my own special, private hell.

“Oh my god, this movie is SO SCARY, Joyanna!! You’re gonna love it!!”

“It’s TERRIFYING. No, like, SERIOUSLY.”

“The special effects are AMAZING!!” (Full confession: this is NOT the way to get me excited about a horror film.)

Like Sisyphus, I shove my heavy hope up the hill, only to have it roll right…the fuck. back. down. Cue the sad violins.

Take A Quiet Place—touted as one of the scariest horror films of the decade, incredibly inventive, or some other such nonsense.  In actuality, I found that film somewhat…let’s call it interesting…at first, and then I became overwhelmed by the incredible plot holes—the largest being, “Wait a second.  These creatures are super sensitive to sound, and NO ONE thought to try and disorient them with a loud, high-pitched sound before now?? Not the military, no one? No one but this mother on a farm??? REALLY?!?!?”

Oy, still gets me.

So yes, I had not-so-high hopes going into this.  Honestly it was the draw of Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne that pushed me to say yes when my friend, Ashley, invited me.  Add to that the fact that my good friend, Amanda, who is a fellow former VisArt Video employee and horror film fanatic (who’s opinion I dearly trust) put the following post on my Facebook page:

Girl. Get back to me when you see “Hereditary.” Holy fuck.

Praise indeed.

(Fun fact: Turns out, Collette and Byrne co-produced it. Looooove me a passion project!)

So Ashley and I settled into our cushy seats with a bottle of Pinot Grigio between us (hey, it’s a Monday afternoon!) to watch Hereditary—directed and written by Ari Aster, and starring Collette (Annie), Byrne (Steve), Alex Wolff (Peter), Ann Dowd (Joan), and introducing Milly Shapiro (as the creepy-mc-creeperton Charlie).

Two hours and 7 minutes later, the credits are rolling, and Ashley and I are just sitting in our seats, mutely staring at the screen.  I feel like crying.  I feel like I’ve been RUINED.  I feel profoundly disturbed.  I feel emotionally thrashed.  Ashley stares at me pleadingly.

“Um. Joyanna? I am SO disturbed right now.”

We gulp the wine in our glasses.  We sit.  Finally we stand up.  I need a unicorn chaser, badly. Tacos.  Yeah, tacos sound good.

*   *   *

Three days later, and I’m still not ready to be alone in my house.  In every dark corner I see a human form, waiting for me.  Behind me, I hear the dreaded “cluck” noise…shiver.

What is it about this film that got to me so much? That’s getting to apparently (almost) everyone? I say “almost” because in my usual researching (read: googling for five minutes) I have already come across the naysayers, the “Personally, I preferred The Witch,” folks, and the “I didn’t really get it. I mean, it was kinda scary,” folks.  They are entitled to their opinions.  Cough cough.  But the majority of people who’ve seen this film are profoundly unsettled, to say the least.  And it stuck with them long after leaving.

So why does this film affect me/us so much? It’s not like there aren’t flaws.  The ending, for example, is heavy-handed, particularly Joan’s little speech to “Paimon” explaining to him why they’ve done what they’ve done (because surely a demon God would not have figured that shit out??).  Later I found out that there apparently was a different ending before, where Paimon gouges out his eyes, but test audiences did not respond well to that.  Ha! I bet.

So I’ve been chewing on this (just for you!), and I can pinpoint a couple of things.  First, and most obviously, this film expertly plays on ALL of the usual tricks that a horror film employs to scare you, and it does them very well.  Being in a room that is dimly lit and thinking you see something out of the corner of your eye that looks like a human form? Check.  Hearing a noise just behind you, and whirling around, only to find you’re alone? Check, check. Things flying out at you? Yup.  The fact that our minds play tricks on us is put to good use here by Ari Aster, and you find yourself looking over your shoulder long after you’ve left the cold gloom of the theater. Oh, and let’s not forget a fresh level of brutality-the decapitation of a child, the mother banging her head against the attic door…what she does later in the attic…

Second, is the possession aspect.  This is why The Exorcist was always, hands down, one of my never-fails-to-get-me films.  Because I believe in spirits, both good and bad, I guess I feel possession is entirely possible, and what could be more awful than having something take over your body, even causing you to do yourself irreparable physical harm, and there’s NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT.

Shudder.

Call me a true Virgo, or Miss Jackson if you’re nasty, but I like to have control.

But despite these things, it doesn’t explain the emotional ravaging that you feel after watching Hereditary.  What it does differently is that it is able to engage the viewer in ways that most horror films don’t–through true, real-life drama.  We all understand fear.  And that is the weapon of choice in most horror films, yes? But ultimately, the only level we can relate to the characters on when watching a frightening film is the fright.  The characters are often badly drawn, superficial, stereotypical, etc.  They’re easy to brush off.  We know the rules, we know the folks who fuck first will surely die.  So it’s easy to sort of watch a film like that, be scared, and maybe even be scared later in the dark.  But you were scared of the dark before.  That film ultimately did not necessarily offer you something illuminating about yourself.  And so the feeling passes quickly.

Hereditary sucks you in and drowns you with dysfunctional family dynamics, which we can certainly all relate to.  Most importantly it taps into the basest fear we all have, deep down–the idea that ultimately, you are totally and completely alone.

First it gets you engaged with the characters.  You feel the loss of a child, the sadness of a lackluster marriage, the isolation of childhood.  It engages you every bit as deeply as any dark drama.  Then, when your defenses are down, it desecrates any and all safe spaces, which is a pretty fascinating approach.  Hereditary takes all of the usual comforts—your parents, your grandparents, your kid sister, your warm and inviting home, and makes them the monsters. This level of familial betrayal is also strong in Rosemary’s Baby, and I think this film references that film in many ways.

There is no soft space to land.  When you’re being chased by spirits and naked devil worshippers, there is no soft bosom to retreat to, no warm hug.  You cannot go to school and escape your chaotic home in the potential friendly and understanding face of your friends (total yuck yuck stoners who barely notice you) or a teacher.  Nope.  Going to school just means getting your face slammed repeatedly into a desk while the teacher and said “friends” look on, helpless.

hEREDITARY

Hey bruh, do you, like, need a paper towel?

Your father is weak and detached, and he eventually gets burned to a wee crisp anyway, so he’s useless.  Your grandmother is an evil bitch who nobody likes and who turns out to be a demon worshipper.  Your mother is going insane.  Your mother could kill you.  Your mother eventually chases you around the entire fucking house, stuck to the fucking wall like a fly, and slams her head maniacally against a door, before decapitating herself with a wire garrote in front of you, maintaining a stoic, angry eye contact with you the entire time.

So yeah, she’s out in terms of aid.

And let’s not forget your kid sister—the charming creature who, when she’s alive cuts the head off of dead birds, and when she’s dead haunts you and wants to take over your human form.  Positively cuddly.  When you’re sitting in the car, not daring to look in the rearview mirror, out in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, with that same sister’s decapitated body in the backseat, there is no one to help you.  That’s why it makes so much sense to me that when Peter is having a panic attack in front of his friends, all he can do is gulp wildly, “J-j-just h-h-hold my haaaannnd!!!!”

Although all of those are examples from Peter’s point of view, you could just as easily flip things around to any of the other characters and find the same theme:

Annie never had a relationship with anyone in her family.  Her mother was…yikes.  Her sibling committed suicide.  She and Steve do not find much comfort in each other.  She’s estranged from her children.  She goes to a grief group, only to have them all stare in uncomfortable silence at her story of her past.  The one person she finds comfort in is Joan, who completely deceives her.

Then you have Steve, who cannot find solace in his wife and is also estranged from his children, most likely because he does not stand up for them.

Charlie is a social outcast and is isolated from her own family.  She only had her grandmother, but she dies.  So yeah, even demons need love.

So what you have here is Aster repeatedly hammering it home:

All of these terrible things are happening to you, and you are TOTALLY ALONE. 

Who cannot relate to, and be terrified of, that devastating feeling?

As a final, entirely personal note for me on why I was so affected by this film, I have to confess it has to do with the loss of a loved one and the subsequent search to have them back in your life, even if in spirit only.  Watching Annie completely break down in the séance scene with Joan brought up a lot for me (God, Toni Collette is an amazing actress).  I lost two very dear family members in the last couple of years and have been wishing desperately that I could reconnect with them, even going so far as to contact a medium (it didn’t work).  That sort of keening pain that Annie is feeling resonates with me.  It certainly contributed to my feelings of being emotionally drained after watching this film.  Rarely do you get a horror film that taps so deeply into true, everyday human emotion–anger, loss, and isolation.  It’s not just being scared by something supernatural, although that element is absolutely there.  It’s the one-two punch that Hereditary pulls by being both a great horror film and a gritty drama.

I think you should absolutely give this film a shot, but with the caveat that it is relentless and brutal.  It is absolutely unrelenting in its tension.  If you’re not jumping at shadows, you’re cringing from the very dysfunctional, very real personal dramas and losses that are taking place.  There is nothing light about this film.  It doesn’t give you a break.  Apparently it was originally meant to be over three hours long, at least according to my walking film encyclopedia, Bill Ackerman (host of the amazing podcast “Supporting Characters”), but it was cut down.  And apparently it was all family angst footage that was cut.  So Aster obviously had a lot more to say on that topic.  Normally I would say give it to me.  But I think I’m good.

And just as a final thought, film is supposed to be a catharsis, right? So isn’t it interesting that, in order to get us all tapped into each other, connected to each other through these shared visceral experiences, we have to be beaten over the head about how we are totally alone?

Well done, y’all.  Well done.  The rock has dropped off the cliff, and my faith in post-20th century horror is renewed.

 

 

 

 

 

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