Spoilers lie ahead…
Hereditary hit theaters last week and fast became one of the most talked about movies of the year. The truth is it’s been one of the most talked about movies of the year, All year, since its premiere at Sundance in January, with early rave reviews suggesting it’s too scary and likening it to The Exorcist.
Then there was the deeply unsettling first trailer and the hilarious terrible news story of the time the trailer was accidentally played ahead of a screening of Peter Rabbit causing parents to cover their children’s eyes and ears and scream “make it stop!” at the projectionist.
Now the film is finally out and audiences get to see for themselves exactly what all the fuss is about. And they have done. On an estimated budget of $10 million, Hereditary has so far become production company A24’s highest opener ever, and was the 4th highest grossing film of its opening weekend in the US behind Ocean’s 8, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Deadpool 2, so far taking over $27 million and counting. Not bad at all for an independent horror movie.
But though Hereditary has a very solid 91% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, audiences aren’t loving it anywhere near as much leaving it lingering on 56%, with comments like the following:
“Don’t be fooled (like I was) for any of the marketing you see for this movie. It is the worst movie I’ve paid to see at the theater for a very long time. It is not a horror movie. It is an overly long family drama with supernatural elements that crop up once you’re about half way in.”
“Why or who gave this 5 stars? It is one of the most boring movies I have ever seen.”
“The hype for this film is definitely not justified.”
Mixed in with other viewers who loved it and gave it rave reviews (it’s telling that anecdotally from a quick glance through, most reviews are either very high or very low – hardly anyone seems to have thought it was so-so).
Indeed the Cinemascore rating for this film – a rating by test audiences in the US spanning A – F – was D+ – pretty damning.
This weekend my Facebook feed (which, as a horror nerd, is packed with horror groups and other horror nerds) was full of discussions about whether Hereditary was or was not scary and whether the film was damaged by the hype.
But can a movie really be damaged by hype?
I have written positively about the film for Den of Geek, and in a previous professional life also reviewed the film for SFX magazine. I am therefore, part of the hype.
This is not because I’m part of some marketing campaign, or because any one is paying me (well I mean, they are, because obviously this is my job, but I’m not paid by anyone with a vested interest), nor do I know director Ari Aster and nor am I someone who hasn’t seen very many horror movies before. I just genuinely thought it was a masterpiece and one of the most deeply disturbing films I’ve seen in recent memory. I found it very scary, and I wouldn’t have said in the past that I scare especially easily.
But what scares one person is absolutely not the same as what scares another. So does labelling this movie as incredibly scary, or this generation’s Exorcist ramp up expectations impossibly high so the film can only ever be a disappointment? Does calling a film scary, somehow make it less scary? And could some of the audience’s negative reactions be partly blamed on the press? And finally, if so, what’s the solution?
The answer isn’t cut and dried and is something of a minefield.
Hereditary is a feature debut from an unknown film maker. Though Toni Collette is very famous, and Gabriel Byrne is quite famous, neither are names that would be able to ‘open a movie’ on their own. Hereditary isn’t part of a franchise, like, say Insidious 4, nor is it attached to a franchise, like something like The Conjuring spin-off The Nun. It’s not a remake, nor is it a reboot, like the upcoming Halloween. It’s not based on a well known property – like the recently very successful It: Chapter One or The Woman in Black.
Nor does it have an obvious genre hook – it’s not a zombie movie, it’s not a vampire film, nor is it a ghost story. It’s not based on a true story and although it does turn out to fit into a certain horror subgenre this doesn’t come into play until halfway through the movie so critics really ought not to tell you which it is.
Hereditary is, in fact, a very difficult sell indeed. And A24 does not have the kind of marketing spend of a major studio so it can’t put millions of dollars behind promotion. In fact, the biggest hook that Hereditary has is that it’s really good and really scary. Or rather, a lot of critics thought it was really good and really scary.
So, of course, this was the angle that A24 shouted from the rooftops. And, if you’ve seen the film, whether you enjoyed it or you didn’t, this is quite possibly why you’ve heard of it. Certainly the first reactions from Sundance were what made me so excited to see the film.
However, I can absolutely appreciate the annoyance of being told a film is the ‘next big thing’ only to watch it and think ‘meh’.
My guilty confession is that I thought Lady Bird was only ok. I like Saoirse Ronan very much. Laurie Metcalf was so brilliant in the film. It was very funny at points. And I am absolutely behind celebrating a female writer/director like Greta Gerwig telling her own story, which is a story about a female experience. But I kind of felt I’d seen it all before and wished everyone would stop talking it in the same breath as things like Dunkirk or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri which were such blistering, challenging, exhausting, and highly cinematic experiences. For me. Which, of course, some people, didn’t really like…
The undeniable truth is that taste is subjective. And it’s personal. A film is only overrated or over-hyped if you didn’t like it as much as the majority of the press or your friends (If you love Hereditary as much as I did then you would think it was ‘correctly hyped’!).
And while that can be annoying and can affect your viewing experience it’s a paradox that we’re probably going to have live with. When the hype is for an enormous and well-known franchise everyone is familiar with it doesn’t tend to affect people so much – you probably already know how you feel about Marvel movies by now for example, and no amount of critical buzz is likely to affect that either way.
On the other hand, without the hype, would you have even heard of Hereditary? Would you have gone to see it? (And ok for many hardcore horror fans the answer is probably yes, but the movie’s smasher of an opening weekend indicates it’s more than just the hardcore who showed up.)
So much brilliant independent cinema with no backing and no stars completely falls by the wayside and never finds its audience outside festivals simply because without a hook there’s no guarantee that people will come.
When something like the brilliant Annihilation goes straight to Netflix in the UK because it was too risky a prospect for a theatrical release even with the likes of Alex Garland, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh on board, what hope is there for most independent films with nowhere near that film’s credentials?
So love or hate Hereditary, if you’re a fan of independent cinema, and in particular horror, let’s be glad it exists. Let’s be glad that audiences went to see it, and let’s remember that it’s a vote of confidence in smart, original, grown up cinema. Every time a moderate budget indie is a success story it’s a message to Hollywood that we, as viewers, don’t just need to be spoon-fed blockbusters. It’s an encouragement for them to take risks, and it’s a vote for trying out first time writer-directors.
And I will celebrate the existence of $10 million indie from a first time director Lady Bird, whether I thought it was over-hyped or not.
Hereditary is in theaters now.