Every summer, stowed between the latest sequel to ComicBook Man Saves Everything and Johnny Depp Fights Special FX, Hollywood tries to sneak at least one interesting horror film into cineplexes. This week, we get Hereditary, a brilliant (and rare) mid-summer take on the slow-burn horror genre.
What, exactly, constitutes a slow-burn horror film? These employ the magic of cinema to turn everyday objects and activities into the most dread-inducing things you’ve ever seen. How? You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s a deep wrongness to what should be mundane. What viewers like me want is an ordinary house rendered unsettling through sound design and dissonant music. We want something banal like handwashing made threatening because of a camera angle. We want a casual stroll down a normal corridor to feel downright Satanic because of the lighting.
Hereditary‘s got allllllll that good stuff.
Spoiler-free summary: things get… odd for a family that lives in a big, shadowy house in the woods after Grandma dies. Mom (Toni Collette) had a strained relationship with Grandma, the teenage son (Alex Wolff) has a strained relationship with Mom, the creepy tween daughter (Milly Shapiro) is creepy, and Dad (Gabriel Byrne) is well-meaning and ineffectual, as dads usually are in movies like these. (Also, dollhouses. So many dollhouses.) Like Don’t Look Now before it, Hereditary uses the tropes of horror movies to address grieving, and just like in Don’t Look Now, a failure to properly grieve leaves people vulnerable to… things.
And that’s all I’ll say about plot. Kudos to writer-director Ari Aster, making his feature-film debut, and all his crew for keeping things creepy throughout. Part of Hereditary‘s cinematic language is a sort of reverse-Shining. Think of Danny roaming the halls of the Overlook Hotel; we’re right behind him, so we see around corners just as he does. Hereditary flips that by frequently showing characters going about their day only to be interrupted by the sight of something just off-screen that ranges from disquieting to horrifying. The extra beats of eyes widening at something we can’t see work like a charm.
Streaming helps slow-burns burn brightly
Slow-burns have been having a bit of Renaissance lately thanks in part to streaming services. They can be made on the cheap because they benefit from mundane locations and lesser-known actors, and expensive computer-enhanced landscapes and effects would just break the spell. Because the artifice of frequent cutting can jar viewers out of the experience, slow-burns tend to favor long takes and straightforward, muscular framing, which work just as well on your TV as they do in the theater. So first-rate cheapies like The Innkeepers and The Pact can, in theory, make a heap of profit from people who stumble across them on Netflix.
Even though Avengers: Infinity War cost about 35 times as much as Hereditary, Hereditary‘s $10 million budget puts it at the pricier end of the slow-burn scale. For that, you could make a Pact, an Innkeepers, and still have enough left over to make a VVitch and a Babadook, a couple other terrific ordinary-becomes-spookys from the last few years (stick around for my TED Talk titled “Looking Up Movie Budgets on Wikipedia”). Part of that extra budget may simply be the presence of actors (and executive producers) Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne; they’re by no stretch of the imagination unknowns, but casual moviegoers might not recognize them.
So let’s bring this review in for a landing. Look, I’ve name-dropped a whole bunch of other horror movies, and if you liked them, you’ll dig Hereditary.