Tell Jason he can finally rest easy. The horror genre has roared back to relevance in recent years and by god, it just might be better than ever.
After decades of nothing but simply unwatchable low-level shlock overflowing with horny teenagers poked full of holes and gruesome gorings of the “mostly” innocent in near-pornographic ways, recent years have seen the rise of a number of indie flicks that for the first time in history actually seek to achieve something that resembles cinematic virtue. Hereditary is the newest film to seek this higher calling, and yet while its metaphorical musings and high production quality definitely raise it above the trash of the past there’s just one thing I just can’t get past.
It simply wasn’t that scary.
Of course, fear is inherently subjective and no doubt many have and will find Hereditary to be nothing sort of bone-chilling. However, compared to the level it could have attained it feels nothing short of a technically beautiful swing and a miss. And it’s not alone. From The Witch to It Follows, Get Out, and It Comes at Night, numerous recent “quality horror” films are all well-made in their own right, and yet they lack the nightmarish punch of an “Exorcist” or “Nightmare on Elm Street”. Films that grasped the neck of America with cold, bony hands and strangled until the blood ran cold. It’s not just the new scary art pics that lack this power. As fantastically blood-curdling a ride The Conjuring and moments from its sequels are, they too have lacked the power to truly transcend a gasping theater. It’s fair, I think then, to wonder just what a truly transcendently haunting horror movie would look like in the age we live in – the age where nothing unseen stays that way for very long.
For whatever hereditary lacks in scare factor though, director and screenwriter Ari Aster does a commendable job managing to craft a darkly compelling tale of family and the sins we inherit from our parents. Following the death of the Graham family’s grandmother (an odd and abusive figure who is obviously not sorely missed), the remaining family members are put through a grossly twisted ordeal as they struggle to fight a mysterious darkness while maintaining their own shreds of sanity. While the first two-thirds are often lacking of traditional scares, the film’s exploration’s of loss and mental illness are often profoundly well done and carry the movie well beyond what could reasonably be expected of them. Likewise, stunningly traumatizing performances across the ensemble but most memorably from star Tony Collete (the mother) and Alex Wolf (the son) will be seared into your eyes for days to come. In fact, these elements transform what could have been a frozen slog into a consuming movie.
But yet again, the lack of true terror stunts any greater ambitions.
Besides for the few shockingly effective moments that terror you from your seat and stuff you face first into nightmarious left-turns, too much does the first hour and a half rely on an all too lazy “slow burn” (a common buzzword in horror nowadays which simply means not scary). The lack of a present threat or the occasional jumpscare aren’t condemning in their own right, but they’re sorely missed here. And as much as they may seek to be a reliant homage to movies like “Rosemary’s Baby”, the ghostly whispers of Hereditary’s villainous forces ultimately come off as just plain boring; a repetitive archetypal antagonist that simply has no place in horror movies of today.
Of course, that’s not to say nothing in Hereditary put me on edge. On the contrary, when Hereditary finally decides to stop sleepwalking in the final half hour it put on a tour-de-force of heart-stopping terror. Petrifying, tragic performances dance satanically with well earned nightmarish portraits and a truly terrifying use of color contrast. In fact, if the entire movie could have run at this pace I may just be raving about a true return to terror.
But it didn’t and I’m not.
Because in the end as well made as recent horror movies like Hereditary have been on a technical level, and no doubt Hereditary is a “good” movie, that missing element of horror still binds them to the muddied grave that they so desperately seek to crawl out. In 1931 Dr. Frankenstein famously screamed “It’s alive!” as his monstrous creation jolted awake. Just like that freakish creature, the corpse of the horror genre has been miraculously stitched back together and forced onto the wide eyes of a petrified public.
Now if it could just be half as scary.