Read This Before You Watch “Hereditary”

The debut film by writer-director Ari Aster, “Hereditary” (2018) was immediately hailed by critics as a cinematic masterpiece of disturbing horror. Even so, a lot of viewers just didn’t quite know what to think of this unsettling film. The end, in particular, confuses people and has prompted many online “explanations” to help people make sense of the story. The movie is our third installment in this five-week media study series about current trends in horror movies.

Following its release a couple years ago, genre fans agreed that “Hereditary” marked the arrival of a brilliant new horror auteur. Though larger audiences were somewhat more mixed about his first film, Aster’s follow-up “Midsommar” (2019) has garnered even more mainstream attention and gained him a loyal following that will likely ensure his future projects continue to receive serious attention.

Given the overwhelming sense of uncertainty and anxiety this film tends to generate in viewers, I’m going to avoid discussing it very specifically in this introduction. I don’t want to give any spoilers, and I suspect that even providing minor interpretive notes could ruin some of the surprises. Instead, I’ll speak more generally about how the film is made and try to remain somewhat vague as I suggest specific aspects to observe while watching the film.

One of the first things you’ll sense about “Hereditary” is that it feels almost more like an “art house” film than a horror flick, which is probably part of why this movie tends to be include in the subcategory of “elevated horror.” I brought up this disputed term in my earlier posts about this series, but it’s not a concept we’ve spent much time discussing thus far. This week, I’ll ask you to consider what the phrase might mean and why it might be applied to “Hereditary” and the previous two films we’ve watched, “The Witch” and “Tigers Are Not Afraid.”

You’ll notice right away that “Hereditary” does some interesting and unexpected things with its characters, its plot, its cinematography, its soundtrack, and especially its setting. As you watch it, play close attention to the writing, directing, acting, and film editing choices as you begin to ponder which elements seem like more conventional horror film tropes and which elements might be considered “elevated.”

One of these elements for example might be the movie’s unique take on dolls and dollhouses. Animated dolls and stuffed animals that come to life are a staple in the horror genre. Consider the “Chucky” and “Annabelle” franchises, or the ventriloquist’s dummy in the old classic “Magic,” or the clown doll in “Poltergeist.” In fact, we saw a variation on the trope just last week in “Tigers Are Not Afraid.” This week you’ll find that “Hereditary” also has dolls and dollhouses, but they’re used in a different way than we’re used to seeing. Spend some time noticing them and thinking about what they do in this film because I’ll be asking you to consider them in the discussion questions this week.

In a slightly different key, you’ll want to pay particular attention to the film’s soundtrack by composer Colin Stetson. The music has been credited as providing a major contribution to the creepiness of the film. In fact, the unsettling, droning and sometimes discordant soundtrack can feel so disturbing that a humorous internet meme has started where people apply the music to the most boring and mundane video clips in order to make them seem menacing.

That’s enough from me for now. Enjoy watching the movie this weekend! I can’t wait to hear what you think.

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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