“Hereditary,” the spooky and delirious new domestic-horror creepshow, is by almost any standard a buzzy success. It first played in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where I liked it so much that I tweaked the programmers for including it in the Midnight section instead of the Dramatic Competition. (It’s an infinitely better film than the one that took the Grand Jury Prize, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”) Critics, by and large, have been over the dark side of the moon about “Hereditary,” and it’s been very effectively marketed by A24, the distribution company that has a sixth sense for how to bring bold and weird and edgy to the masses. The movie opened this weekend on 2,964 screens and made $13 million (the biggest opening in A24’s history), putting it on track to leap past the success of such recent low-budget fright flicks as “It Follows” and “It Comes at Night.” More than that, it’s the rare horror film that’s made itself part of the conversation.
There is just one demon fly in the ointment: Mainstream audiences — or, at least, a good portion of them — are turning on “Hereditary.” They think the movie is slow, odd, goofy, arty, inexplicable. I don’t usually put much stock in the weekly grades compiled by CinemaScore, but this weekend, when “Hereditary” received a CinemaScore grade of D+, it was an eyebrow-raiser, a real red flag — kind of like when “Drive,” another deliberately paced and artful film lauded by critics, got a D from CinemaScore. The bad grade, in this case, raises a question: Why are so many people turning on “Hereditary” who would be all too happy to sit through the limb-severing, soundtrack-gonging, ghost-face-in-the-mirror megaplex horror implement of the week? The reason they’re turning on it, of course, is that it’s not the megaplex horror implement of the week.
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Nineteen years ago, when “The Blair Witch Project” inspired its own schizoid reaction (half the people who saw it connected to it; the other half thought it was the overhyped non-event of all time), it laid bare a nearly epistemological divide in the moviegoing audience, a kind of blue state/red state schism. The very qualities that a lot of people responded to in “Blair Witch” — it was shivery and stripped down and suggestive; it didn’t jolt you with Pavlovian music cues; it talked about a monster it didn’t show you — were the very qualities that others rejected. I was a fan but understood, on some level, why the haters felt the way they did. The movie, in its MTV-“Road Rules”-from-hell way, was ethereal and nearly poetic in its fear. If it didn’t get under your skin, it was probably going to drive you nuts.
But when I first saw “Hereditary,” it never occurred to me that mainstream audiences would have a problem with it, since it’s a ghost story with a quota of conventional shocks and shivers. Then again, it’s also a defiantly eccentric psychodrama that hangs back, refusing to deliver those things on cue; its ghosts don’t terrorize so much as they beckon. This weekend, I went to see “Hereditary” again in a theater in Times Square, and the reaction was telling. About a third of the audience was actively hostile to it — they were laughing, jeering, incredulous. At the end, walking out of the theater, I listened to bits of chatter about the movie, and much of what I heard was feverish and excited. A lot of people responded to it, yet those who didn’t thought it was a scandalous cheat. Why were they so hostile?
The answer, I think, is that horror films now require a kinesthetic element of funhouse sensation to engage a wide audience. “A Quiet Place” is a good example. True to its title, it’s a quiet and subtle movie — except for when it’s not, when aliens with jaws the size of bulldozer shovels are tearing away at anything that dares to make a sound. These days, the horror films that become mainstream hits tend to be so sensational, even debased, that they’re like ritualized celebrations of our inhumanity. At slasher movies, people view the killers as rock stars of mayhem; at paranormal thrillers, ghosts go bump, crash, and boom in the night; at torture porn, the torture is the star — the “characters” are just fresh meat. And almost any tale of the supernatural turns into a relentless carnival of Jack-in-the-box devils.
“Hereditary,” by contrast, tells the story of a splintered family that’s being not just haunted but slowly infiltrated by ghosts, who are mounting a spiritual takeover of the here and now. This is an afterlife movie that deals its Tarot cards one at a time, asking you to piece together the puzzle of what’s going on beneath the surface of the everyday. You could say that the family’s members are victims — the tormented mother, played with piercing rage and despair by Toni Collette, or her teenage son, played by Alex Wolff as a bewildered pothead caught up in forces he can’t begin to fathom. But to get on the film’s wavelength, you have to allow yourself to connect with these characters. What binds us to to them, before terror, is empathy.
Without that empathetic response, the movie doesn’t work. “Hereditary” isn’t a fear apparatus — it’s a drama, or it’s nothing. At my Saturday matinee, I saw the hostile portion of the audience turn on the movie — loudly — whenever it became an explicit tale of emotional demons. The intense scene in which Toni Collette’s Annie, channeling the hatred of her own mother (because that’s how it can work in families), stands in front of her son’s bed, confessing to him that she never wanted to be a mother in the first place, was greeted, by members of the audience, as if the film had lost its mind. And when Alex Wolff’s Peter reacted to a séance by collapsing into a crying fit, they responded by mocking him. There was something very Age of Trump in the response, as if they were saying: Man up, you wussy ghost boy.
“Hereditary” is far from flawless. It hardly needed to be 127 minutes long; I would gladly have lived without the section about a notebook of ghost scrawls that causes you to catch fire if you try to burn it. And the critic Joshua Rothkopf probably didn’t do the film any favors when he wrote that it “takes its place as a new generation’s ‘The Exorcist’ — for some, it will spin heads ever more savagely.” I’ve written opinions that are just as hyperbolic, but in this case the “Exorcist”/”Hereditary” comparison got out there and became a meme that set up expectations the movie couldn’t possibly deliver on.
And yet, by the end of “Hereditary” — in fact, in the film’s final scene — something happens that’s so uncanny it gets its hooks into you. It’s the last piece of the puzzle, and the one the movie has been building toward. And the fact that we can’t see the full puzzle until the end is part of the film’s special quality; we feel, suddenly, as if we’re in a dark dream that’s more real than reality. That’s not a sensation you get at a horror movie every day, and it’s one that audiences should savor, not jeer. But it only works if you’re open to a horror film enlarging your sense of mystery instead of gruesomely snuffing it.