Cinematic Essence: Hereditary

Welcome to Cinematic Essence, where I critique both contemporary and classic films and discuss how they utilize narrative, mise-en-scène and other filmmaking elements to facilitate unique experiences. I avoid spoilers when I discuss recent films.

Nothing illustrates the sad, widespread disregard for the horror genre among so-called “artistic” circles of cinema better than the exclusion of “Hereditary” from this year’s Oscars and Golden Globes. Please do not worry, this article is not meant as an angry “Oscar snub” rant­­ — I simply wish to discuss and increase awareness of what I believe is, on a technical level, the best-made film that I saw in 2018.

“Hereditary” is Ari Aster’s directorial debut for a feature-length film and stars Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd, and also introduces Milly Shapiro. The A24 production was widely released at the beginning of June and quickly became what many call an “instant classic.” In fact, fans on the web have called “Hereditary” this generation’s “The Exorcist,” and Quad Assistant News Editor and self-proclaimed horror snob Samantha Walsh describes the film as “the scariest movie [she’s] ever seen.”

So, what is it that makes “Hereditary” great? I believe that its greatness rests not on any of its individual cinematic elements — wonderful as they all are — but rather on the interplay between those elements, which culminate to facilitate an experience so strong and harrowing that it leaves you with a sense of dread for days or even weeks after the end-credits roll. It is exactly the type of film that I had in mind when I wrote the introduction to my column.

Everything just feels “off,” which keeps you constantly on edge, but you cannot quite put your finger on why.

The plot of “Hereditary” is not worth delving into deeply in this review. In short, the film grapples with the shocking aftermath of a creepy, enigmatic matriarch’s death and with the psychological and physical strain which that and other tragedies impose on the Graham family, a typical suburban family. The event that initiates the horror — which I will not spoil here — is something that you are undoubtedly familiar with. One may even call some of the narrative’s twists and turns generic. The genius of this film rests therefore not on an original premise, but instead on the terrific execution that pulls absolutely no punches and illustrates an unusually firm grasp on psychology, trauma and the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

As early as in its opening, “Hereditary” subtly warns you about what type of film you are watching. It opens with the matriarch’s funeral. From this scene on, everything just feels “off.” The framing is a bit too clean. The camera lingers on a photograph for a bit too long. The stranger in the back of the room stares a bit too acutely. Everything just feels “off,” which keeps you constantly on edge, but you cannot quite put your finger on why.

The best way to explain the “why” is to praise the macabre cinematography, sound design, composition and the film’s many other technical aspects. There exist several moments when the movie is framed in such a way which  makes you unsure of whether you see that figure in the darkness, that head around the corner or that crawling thing back there on the wall. 

The use of lighting and contrast also enhance the horror, and are aided by the elaborate architecture of the house which serves as the set for much of the film. Furthermore, it is obvious that much thought was put into timing, especially when choosing  to finally show the likes  of which the audience is already half-aware. I can think of one standout scene in that respect, and its essence may be best described using a quote by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. I will not include the quote here, because it is very long and I would prefer not to annoy my editor by taking up several pages, but you may easily find it online if you search “the bomb under the table.” Suffice it to say that “Hereditary” boasts a fine-tuned understanding of the cinematic form, and thus causes you to stay on edge for its entire runtime — ensuring a lingering sense of vague discomfort The movie never lets you breathe.

There is so much else that I would love to discuss about “Hereditary,” such as Toni Collette’s fantastic and eerie performance. However, I believe that this is the type of film that must be experienced, not simply viewed. If anything, I fear that I may have already revealed too much. So, if you are a horror fan, I recommend that you rush out to get a copy of “Hereditary.” If it resonates half as much with you as it did with me, you will share my vexation with the film’s exclusion from the most prestigious cinematic awards.

Christoforos Sassaris is a third-year student majoring in English with minors in computer science and creative writing. PS868710@wcupa.edu

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