Pushing the limits of darkness.
Writer/director Ari Aster (from 0:34) describes his own film as “a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare, in the same way that life can feel like a nightmare when disaster strikes” (via q on cbc):
Perhaps because it’s given less screen time, or because its depictions lack the creativity or clarity given to other elements of the film, the actual Satanic cult “explanation” of the events in Hereditary feels like the least interesting part of the film. Without it, and despite the way other elements (such as the dioramas) begin promisingly, and sometimes even extraordinarily, yet ultimately don’t seem to fully come together, Hereditary more than works as a crafted, primal howl of an intensely dark family drama.
Many horror films aim for the Psycho effect, but Hereditary nails it in one excruciating moment
“Dark” is the key word: beyond even the extraordinary performances from Toni Collette (who works a bit of that The United States of Tara magic into this), Alex Wolff, (and of course Gabriel Byrne‘s Steve, the true hero of this impossible situation), as well as the constantly-inventive and perpetually-jarring blocking, camera work, editing, and sound design, there are some incredible shots of faces and landscapes (where on Earth do these people live?), so underlit as to barely make out details, or to separate foreground from background, subject from object. And yet just enough detail is there, thanks to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski‘s meticulous, creepy, outrageous skirting the very edge of what the eye (or the lens) can see. It feels like arguments must have been had, if not on-set, at the very least between filmmakers and studio, about just how far a viewer could be pushed to make out in such darkness.
The scene from which still above is taken is, i’m sure completely intentionally, a moment up there with the shot which immediately follows the shower scene in Psycho. It’s just the same sort of gut-wrenching suspension of identification for the viewer, albeit of course for different reasons. In Psycho, the protagonist is suddenly gone, and we’re left with a weirdo; in Hereditary, we’re stuck with an ordinary, relatable teenager in a sudden, unfathomable nightmare. I’m sure many horror films aim for the Psycho effect, but Hereditary nails it in this one excruciating moment. While Hereditary‘s ultimate resolution doesn’t work for me personally, that moment is a visceral achievement on its own.
A more technical understanding of the lighting techniques used to such unsettling effect in Hereditary can be found in Wolfcrow‘s breakdown of nine combinations of overexposed, underexposed and middle exposed lighting…
… which is included in this exploration of Chiaroscuro & Contrast Ratio:
As i found myself searching the dark corners of every frame of Hereditary, i was reminded of hbomberguy‘s video essay on the effects of VHS video artefacts on old horror movies, where shots of darkness are filled with visual noise, further heightening the suspense and terror:
… and funnily enough, Heavy Spoilers takes this idea straight to their editing software, and turns up the brightness and volume on certain shots to reveal even more horror literally hiding in the darkness:
Bonus Humblebrag: it’s kinda nice to discover that Martin Scorsese had similar takeaways from the film (via The Lincoln Center):