I’ve been delighted to hear how much you all seemed to enjoy “Hereditary” (2018), Ari Aster’s feature debut. He’s certainly emerged as a filmmaker to notice. I would also strongly encourage you watch his latest horror film, “Midsommar” (2019). This follow-up film is no sophomore slump. If anything, it builds on and expands the themes he began exploring in his first film. As we’ve been discussing in our series about “elevated horror,” there’s a lot to admire in novels and films that use horror as a metaphorical way to dig into deeper realms of philosophy and psychology.
Be warned that my wrap up here does give some spoilers. That said, I’ve tried to limit these as much as I can and to talk about things obliquely enough that those who have already seen the film will readily understand me while those who haven’t will still have some surprises left when they watch the movie.
The very title of the film “Hereditary” suggests that we consider how interwoven into the fabric of this family are the more supernatural elements of the narrative. Whether its demonic cult worship or merely inherited mental illness, this film explores how elements beyond our personal control tend to warp our minds and our relationships. On a first viewing, the strange behavior of these characters can feel disorienting. We’re not sure where to ascribe actual agency and where to detect outside influences beyond individual control and personal responsibility.
As such, the dolls and dollhouses represent one of the most fascinating aspects of this film. They suggest that we consider the powerlessness of the humans in the face of greater forces, perhaps gods and demons or perhaps genetics and family dysfunction passed though the generations. In either case, these external influences can make us mere mortals feel as if we’re merely pawns in some larger, maniacal game that we can’t even comprehend.
Nowhere is this ruling metaphor of the film more explicit than in the brilliantly disorienting opening shot. The camera travels across and through the mother artist’s work studio and moves into a meticulously rendered reproduction of her son’s bedroom. Then, while we think we’re still looking at a dollhouse version of the teenaged son lying in bed, he stirs and gets up out of bed. The effect on the viewer here is absolutely stunning! As soon as we cross over this transition, we know we’re in for some serious cinematic weirdness. The disorientation is reiterated later in the scene where the mother artist is creating a diorama of the recent incident where one of the characters is suddenly decapitated. Confronted by her tirelessly reasonable husband, she can’t understand why there’s anything wrong with depicting the scene in miniature.
But part of the postmodern, meta-fictional power of this moment in the film resides in the fact that the very horror movie we’re actually watching just allowed the decapitation to take place off screen. The mother artist brings the off-scene violence into view. By the way, it’s no accident that the word “obscene” comes from the Greek for “off stage.” The “obscene” to the ancient Greeks was defined by the sex and violence that were very much a part of their dramas but did not take place in front of the audience. In “Hereditary,” the mother’s meticulous, almost loving recreation of this terrifying scene is what then ensures that the viewer is forced to look directly into the face of this obscene horror.
The score and the soundtrack by Colin Stetson are incredible. Is it any wonder there are memes about it? For me, one of the most powerful aspects of this music is how discordant and upsetting it can be during moments of apparent calm, and in contrast how rhapsodically the music swells into flowing melodies and lovely harmonies during scenes of the most stark violence and horror. The contrast works wonderfully.
Again, thank you all for your participation. I love reading your feedback and your responses to my discussion questions. Keep sending me more.
We’ve hit this stride of this short series on “elevated horror” now. I hope you all agree that if it’s true that many filmgoers have tended to write off horror as a worthless sub-genre, they’ve made a terrible mistake and missed out on some great filmmaking. Looked at correctly, horror remains at the heart of much canonical world literature. Though the label can seem to dismiss earlier horror, for now we must acknowledge that “elevated horror” (including films like the ones we’ve been watching, but of course many others) serves as a corrective label that invites newcomers into the genre and allows horror to reclaim its actual centrality to our literature and film. In the right hands, horror can be a thing of true beauty.