Between the funerals, dollhouses, and a weirdo kid with a decapitated bird, Hereditary is clearly a horror film, the kind steeped in the tradition of The Exorcist.
After months of Sundance hype, Ari Aester’s $10-million movie overperformed at the box office with $13-million last weekend, the largest ever opening for the small studio A24. Not bad for a movie that is really about a family dealing with the (extremely fucked up) loss of a loved one.
Hereditary is the latest in a trend of art-house horror films such as Get Out and A Quiet Place that have found mainstream success despite the serious, depressing stories at their core. And with a box office that seemingly only rewards superhero and Star Wars movies, that’s unusual.
Taking a look at the highest grossing numbers from just last year: of the top 25 films, you could maybe consider two of them actual dramas, Dunkirk and Wonder. While you get a few movies like The Post or Phantom Thread just prior to awards season every year, it’s increasingly clear Hollywood doesn’t think there’s much of an audience for movies with grownup themes. And while there will be an occasional minor hit for an indie film, like 2016’s Moonlight, it’s not like smaller studios are doing much better.
But horror films are finding success with that experimental, human experience jumbo.
Hereditary—a film about a mother(Toni Collette) whose family begins to unravel after terrifying secrets about the ancestry are revealed—shouldn’t be bankable based on the emotion it’s selling: grief. The kind of clutch-your-pearls grief that floods in like an inescapable wave. It’s mind numbingly bleak, and somehow managed a decent box-office draw.
Over the past few years, a few prestige horror films have achieved a backdoor bait and switch. They’ve used fear as a hook to fill theaters, all the while boldly taking on topics like indie dramas without box-office fucks to give. In the process they’re taking over cultural conversation like indie dramas of the past—think films like Requiem for a Dream (2000) , Fruitvale Station (2013), and Boys Don’t Cry (1999). A 2018 film like Hereditary uses the supernatural to increase the stakes of its drama and emotions—tragedy, culpability and inescapable grief.
Studio hopes for awards from horror films have always been on the low side, thanks to 80s slashers ruled by masked super-killers (11 Halloween movies, and 12 Friday the 13th sequels), meta horror (Evil Dead, Peeping Tom, Scream), and the torture films of the 2000s, (Saw, Hostel, The Human Centipede, The Hills Have Eyes). But there’s always been a few cracks of prestige into the horror genre, films like The Shining and Rosemary's Baby.
But the last 10 years has seen a run of arthouse horror movies at a rate that’s unheard of. Films like It Follows, The Babadook, Let the Right One In have shown that both critics and horror fans can agree on something. A film like Hereditary can follow suit, hiding its unsellable themes in the promise of terror-filled expectations. Scenes are shot in ways that feel claustrophobic and just slightly off-kilter. Moments of slow, cold dread accumulate, and the associated images appear raw: a bird’s head, a burning body, an frozen expression, all saying the same damn things about what grief can look and feel like in a movie theater.
The last few art-house horror flicks with small budgeted success deal with issues in similar ways. Jordan Peele’s Get Out (racism), The Witch (paranoia), A Quiet Place (family and loss), and The Babadook (grief)—all use elements of the horror genre to sell drama, tickets and even win Oscars.
Frankly, I’m all for it. The blend of what I once knew with what horror has become understandably divides audiences (Hereditary has a lowly Rotten Tomato audience score of 59 percent), but I gotta ask, what are genre fans really in it for? How many times can you feel the horror trope coming before it gets all the way tired? Films should be wholly entertaining but also insightful and surprising. If the genre is given the resources to make the topics we’ve avoided feel fresh and new, there’s no reason it can’t continue this successful run.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.
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