I left the theatrical showing of Hereditary (2018’s second critically acclaimed horror hit) convinced that we need a second film rating system to augment – or replace – the MPAA one. We need recommended maturity levels. Because the “R” rating for “horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use, and brief graphic nudity” doesn’t warn you about what type of movie this really is – that description could be talking about IT, and that’s a very, very different kind of horror movie.
To wit, the showing I was at, an auditorium only about 1/3 full, obviously contained a few groups of teenagers probably expecting a fun rollercoaster of a horror movie. I’m here to tell you, Hereditary is an endurance test of a film. How much tragedy, grief, horrific imagery and tension can you handle? There’s an event that occurs at the end of the first act of this movie, which I wouldn’t dare spoil, that caused the entire audience – even the giggling teenagers – to go dead silent for the next 20 minutes. When death happens in Hereditary, it’s not treated as the fleeting threat it is in most horror movies. They make you FEEL it, and they don’t let you off the hook of witnessing every gut-churning reaction that each member of the central family feels in response, especially Toni Collette’s character who is rightfully being singled out for her performance here. So, I feel this bears repeating: Don’t see Hereditary if you’re hoping for a fun time at the movies.
I don’t want to dissuade anyone though. Horror fans must see this. Like The Witch and Get Out, this is in its own new class of modern horror, or possibly post-modern horror, and it’s much, much scarier than either of those other two films. Actually, The Witch is a very fair comparison to make regarding the tone and the style of horror on display. It takes its time – probably too much time, hence my maturity level recommendation – laying track for horror to come later. The entire first and most of the second act, barring the aforementioned scene, is straight drama, which may test the patience of some viewers. But it’s all in service of crafting an environment of dread that envelopes you so completely that the smallest of payoffs land like haymakers. Be prepared to feel utterly petrified by the sound of a clucking tongue, for example.
Because the plot unfolds as a carefully rationed mystery, with clues and visual patterns being dropped before you know what they mean, you never really feel “safe” as a viewer. Much like the American The Ring splashed a bucket of ice water on the audience with the “I saw her face” scene, Hereditary also announces its intention to scare the shit out of you in ways you’ll never see coming. And yet, traditional jump scares are almost non-existent. There are sudden, horrifying surprises sure, but it’s never accompanied by a cheap audio sting that immediately releases all the tension. It just builds and builds, so that the climactic “hell breaks loose” finale just eviscerates you. Lesser movies contain more “big scare moments”, but none of them cut so deep as they do here.
This review, and all other respectful ones, are purposefully vague about the plot because to know too much too soon would rob you of much of the impact. Being just as in the dark and helpless as the characters in the movie is kind of the point. Experience it for yourself. Wait for home video, if that’s more your speed. Hereditary does not benefit from a live, reactive audience like IT does. Just make sure you have some strong brain bleach ready for when you go to bed.