There is a reason why we are more afraid of the absence of a spider than of the spider itself.
When we see a spider on our ceiling, on our wall, on our floor (if you are scared of spiders) we have an instant shock of horror. We feel this electrical pulse surge through our hearth and we jump, or we flinch, or we scream. When we don’t see a spider, though, we worry about where the spider might be. We worry about what might happen if we let our guard down, even for a single second.
Hereditary, for two acts, is the film version of the spider that is missing. It taunts you with shadowed imagery and slow pans. It toys with you by leading you to expect something and then suddenly pushing you forward without giving you that expectation.
It’s actually quite smart -- for years we have been conditioned by horror films to fear the dark, to fear silence, because we know when we are immersed in those specific environments something pops out at us, or crashes loudly. We expect the forced fear that we have continuously witnessed again and again in countless horror films, good and bad. But here, in Hereditary we don’t get that. Even in the sub-par third act there is this incredible restraint on the part of writer/director Ari Aster. He is completely comfortable letting the camera sit in a corner, or look down a hallway while leading us up to the moment we are expecting and then, at the last second, pulling away.
Because of this style (which is not wholly original to Aster’s film; The Witch also did this excellently) we are left in a perpetual state of anxiety and stress -- we can’t see the spider, but we know it’s out there.
The difficulty with this film comes in its final act where it finally shows its hand. I won’t spoil it here but I found it, to put it politely, disappointing. It felt like a very clichéd way to finish the story. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t anxiety inducing or well acted or well directed -- it was. It just wasn’t well written.
Part of my frustration with many horror films is their incessant need to clarify and contextualize the “menace”, especially when it comes to supernatural horror. That restraint I just praised a few moments ago is thrown out the window narratively when the third act hits its stride.
Now, granted, you may not have the same problems I had with it. You may even really love the direction they pulled the story. I, however, felt it was derivative and lazy in a film that -- for two acts -- had been anything but those two things.
Moving on from narrative, the technical aspects of this film were astounding.
I loved the cinematography. There is something about long hallways -- they are simultaneously too cramped and too big. I got very uneasy watching the characters whenever they were in one of the hallways (or whenever they were framed with a hallway behind them). One of the final sequences, which follows a character through these hallways, is the perfect example of why I find this kind of architecture creepy -- it reveals and hides in equal measure.
The sound design is also superb. The film flows between its unsettling score and complete silence; I preferred the silent scenes more.
The cast in this is excellent. Toni Collette is electrifying in the lead role, managing to display grief, anger, shock, and horror perfectly. There is one scene where she is crying by her bed, screaming “I want to die” that was incredibly powerful.
The rest of the cast is good, too, though they are overshadowed by Collette. The only person who feels underwritten is Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne. He spends a lot of the film playing the straight man -- comforting his wife, being a skeptic to the weird things going on, occasionally displaying some level of grief (but not often).
Overall, Hereditary is very well made. Ari Aster joins a long line of good filmmaker debuts that are surprising and stick with you. Unfortunately, though, that third act took a lot of the wind out of the story for me which, in turn, knocked down its score.
Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Just be prepared to be looking for that spider for two hours.