by Alvin G. Burstein
It may have been Stephen King—and who would be better qualified—who distinguished among terror, horror and shock. Stories evoking these strong unpleasant feelings, paradoxically, can find an avid audience, a fact on which King has capitalized. The distinction is that terror implies a sense of personal fearful involvement; horror is a more distant, almost pornographic, viewing of a fearful situation. Shock, in contrast, generates revulsion along with fear. Along those lines, last month’s review of A Quiet Place noted the terror it evoked. This month’s film, Hereditary, is a shocker.
In some ways the film seems a mix of Heironymous Bosch and Salvador Dali, giving us repugnant details woven into a surreal mesh that generates uncertainty about the nature of reality.
As the film’s title suggests, the tale is multi-generational, dealing with a quirky, just deceased grandmother at the time of her funeral, her troubled daughter, Annie, baffled son-in-law, Steve, and her two grandchildren, a pre-teen girl, Charlie and older grandson, Peter. It may be more of a teaser than a spoiler to point out that the grandchildren’s names are an allusion to the role that maleness will play in the movie’s denouement. That kind of allusiveness abounds in the film—for example, a scene of a walnuts being chopped for a dessert precedes, without explicit linkage, a later anaphylactic attack—contributing to the surreal quality.
The surreal quality emerges early in another way. Annie is an artist who creates tiny miniature rooms. As the film opens, she uses magnifying lenses and special tools to create a bedroom that morphs into Peter’s actual bedroom as his father, Steve, enters to rouse his son for the grandmother’s funeral. And then there are the use of peripheral events, things seen out of the corner of the eye—a figure floating in the corner of the room—or heard in the background—Charlie’s occasional tongue click.
At the funeral Annie describes her fraught relationship with her mother. At a grief group she attends later, she enlarges on the dysfunction of other family members, a schizophrenic brother who committed suicide and a depressed father who starved himself to death. These catastrophes are both a counterpoint to and a motivation for her creation of tiny, controlled simulacra of reality.
The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips sees the family as the place where one learns to deal with conflict. He has in mind the paradox of the family as a source of necessary grounding but, at the same time the font of inevitable conflicts of interests and ambivalences. That kind of drama is painfully expressed when Annie describes her guilt about her troubled past and when she reveals to Peter that she didn’t want to be a mother and had tried to abort his birth.
To detail the repugnant elements would take us into spoiler territory. But few early examples: Charlie beheads a bird. And she gets smeared with chocolate at a party that Peter takes her to.
And there are lots of insects.
I did not find Hereditary frightening. Like Bosch and Dali, it was disturbing in fascinating ways. It was a shocker. But I knew it wasn’t real–luckily.