The most unsettling element in “Hereditary” is rooted not in specifics or reveals, but in a deliberate evasion of answers. This is a film so audaciously assured that the audience is rarely given the chance to clutch the source of the horror, as if to assume details can be distorted by a deceitful vantage point. In a way that makes the primary observation just as maddening as it is unsettling – and after a monumental promotional engine pointed to grandiose comparisons with “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” most viewers targeted it with a frustrated dismissal rather than shared accolades. But for Ari Aster, who makes his directorial debut with a script he also penned, it represents a bold and striking departure from the populist convention of horror films, where great inspirations are usually filtered down by derivative ideals. Containing almost no jump scares or slick camera edits, the movie throbs with a relentless underlying terror that is frequently mystifying, sometimes aggravating, and almost always poised to keep the mind engaged in disquieting wonder. If the most elusive quality of a genre picture is how fears manifest in the uncertain, Aster finds them lodged the membrane of a greater psychological riddle.
The opening scene of “Scream 2” contains a dialogue on horror films as a device of exploitation on minorities – particularly for African Americans, who are routinely the first to die at the end of a knife-wielding madman. That the comment is delivered by a character played by Jada Pinkett is not ironic; because the movie knows it must play by similar rules, however self-aware, her observation will serve as prophecy as she and her boyfriend are murdered by a masked maniac at a local screening on the night of her proclamation. No, the true irony is found above them: the film they have shown up to see is a Hollywood retelling of the Woodsboro murders from the year prior, which have been sensationalized into a cheap slasher knock-off at the expense of the survivors. This reality is expressed with a striking clarity during the close of the opening scenes, in which Pinkett’s character is stabbed with incessant conviction by a hooded figure just as the audience behind her engages in uproarious cheers at the murder going on in the light of the projector. Only when she walks up towards the screen and lets out one last horrific scream do they realize a fatal tragedy has transpired among the crowded seats of the screening room: their embrace of the violence has inherently created a perfect storm for their ambivalence to a literal manifestation of it.
The fundamental component of any descent into the unknown is an unresolved emotional wound lurking beneath the exterior, consistently haunting the main character as they confront dangers in the present. A riveting acid test frequently rises in this duality: without the ability to reach closure with the past, how does one find the courage to confront something sinister staring back at them? It is a measure of psychology scurrying deeply through a great number of modern thrillers that puts heightened emphasis on the stakes of the survivors, and somehow as they attempt to outwit devilish creatures, ambiguous aliens or supernatural terrors we become facets of their struggle, right down to the obligatory climactic moment when they have no choice but to relive the old pain just as mortality seems within reach. Think of the grief of losing a daughter and how it propels the heroine of “The Descent,” for instance, who is forced to relive memories of her child’s final birthday as monsters in a dark cave close in towards her location: is it the idea of the creatures that is disturbing, or that a universe who spawns them is unwilling to spare a woman who is already barely functioning?
The bridge persists as a stubborn link between a decaying empire and imminent liberation, defended enthusiastically by seven young men on the precipice of mortal danger. They wear masks that distort their notion of the inevitable, but not merely out of ignorance; they have been molded by the vehement enthusiasm of nationalism, which remains unchanged even after buildings have crumbled and soldiers have been erased from the battlefields. Most of them are all too eager to step in as defenders of their treasured Reich, though the faces of their parents reflect a more anxious concern. In one notable moment, for instance, one of the mothers tearfully pleas with her son to ignore the drafting letter he has received, insisting that he flee to the country to stay with relatives. He declines, grinning the whole way, which places emphasis on the underlying conflict: can these teenage boys be faulted for being slaves to the pure and idealistic, even as the possibilities of triumph seem lost in a haze of downtrodden confessions? Perhaps it is more sobering to see them as symbols of the uncultivated, especially under the rule of the Nazis: because this essentially made them the most expendable in an impending fight against enemy combatants, an obligatory defeat only aggravates the wound created by their destructive occupation.