Critics are in love with the low-budget horror hit Hereditary. It is being praised as a game changer, and a masterpiece. It made over $70 million on a Blair Witch budget. By any measure, the film is a success - it is refreshingly unconventional, technically precise, pokes you right in your existential dread bone, and it made a lot of money. Yet for me, it didn't quite satisfy for the simple reason that while people are losing their shit over this well-made little film, a masterpiece it is not.
By the time the film released in Indonesia, sometime in June, it had already made the rounds on the festival circuit, where film nerds and horror geeks couldn't stop singing its praises. Through no fault of its own, the hype for this film before I saw it was tremendous. It got picked up by A24, which has been absolutely smashing the low-cost, high-quality film market lately. I was reading these glowing reviews about how the film was going to do for horror what Jaws had done for high concept summer blockbusters. And then I watched the film. And I kept waiting for this revelatory thing to happen, for the game-changing moment, for the beautiful, sublime poetry of the thing to emerge and make itself known. But it never happened. It was just a good film.
Most reviews start off by noting that it is not actually that conventionally scary. Not many cheap jump-scares, or bloody spectacle. Instead, the film's innovative take on the genre is to combine a fairly conventional satanic cult story with a very real and intensely acted drama about a family struggling to deal with tragedy and loss and mental illness and the vagaries of their everyday existence. You could strip the satanic cult part of the movie out, and still be left with the raw emotional drama of a typical indie film about a family battling depression. So the film, ultimately, is about a fucked up family battling their demons - who end up battling real demons.
This is the game-changing innovation? To mash-up an indie family drama with the horror genre? In that case, Bone Tomahawk was the game-changer, and it was more fun to watch! (possibly because a Western is simply more entertaining than a movie about a family full of schizophrenic depressed people screaming at each other). Don't get me wrong, I understand why people are impressed by the movie. It zigs where you expect it to zag (the central tragedy around which the narrative spins is not one you are likely to see coming, and it comes with a shockingly sudden quickness and brutality). The acting is great. And by rooting a ghost story in relatable family tensions, it gives the story a kind of human weight and dimension that is absent from, say, The Conjuring. Most of us are not really scared that some day we might have to call a paranormal ghost detective to get a demon out of our house. But we are scared that something terrible might happen in the everyday course of our lives, and that we will be forever changed in the eyes of those we love. The real terror in this film is not satanic cult worship. It is that forgiveness for our sins, especially from our family members, might not be possible.
Technically the film is also very good. It features a kind of tightly controlled filmmaking, which announces itself with a super-cool zoom shot on a doll-house that seamlessly transitions into a live set. The sound design is also subtly brilliant, turning the innocuous popping sound that people make with their mouths into a totem of dread (the audience in my theater spontaneously broke into a chorus of pops at various points, which was kind of awesome). This controlled, carefully paced style helps imbue the story with a sense of plodding, inexorable doom. There is an emptiness in the film's visual and sound design that hangs on the screen and impresses upon you this existential sense of terror, sort of like what Herman Melville was trying to do with Moby Dick. But, just like with Moby Dick, that can make the film feel a little flat some times, and a little draggy.
Ultimately, I liked Hereditary. I liked that it dared to be different. I liked the genre mash-up, even if I'm not particularly fond of emotionally raw family dramas where people with obvious mental problems scream all the time and act like they've just injected a golf-ball of crystal meth. It is still fun to see different styles and themes mixed with one another, and the film does it well. I enjoyed the technical skill that went into it, even if at times it placed a drag on the narrative momentum. I thought it was a very well-made, original film and it deserves high praise. But for me at least, it's not a game changer. It's not a masterpiece. There is no sublime genius hidden in this genre mash-up that made me open my eyes and go "Wow. There it is." The earth did not move beneath me.
And that is a terribly unfair standard to hold a film to, to criticize it because it's merely very good, but perhaps not masterful. Yet the hype-machine built Hereditary up into something that, for me, it just wasn't and on some level, even though I know it's unfair and illogical, I found that ever so slightly disappointing.