Hereditary Should’ve Been A Novel: A Review (Spoilers)

The depiction of Paimon in the movie is lame.

Obviously, there’s a lot to interpret in a long, ambitious film like Hereditary. The objective plot, however, is that Grandma and Annie and the Paimon cult are practicing occult rituals to summon Paimon. In a lore book, he’s called a god of mischief and at the end a cult member calls him one of the eight kings of hell. She adds something like, “You’re first form had problems, so we got you a new host.”

I understood that this soliloquy meant to disambiguate some of the film’s content, which I can only imagine is bizarre for people who haven’t read weird fiction. But honestly, it made me laugh because I felt awkward for the director/writer. Let me explain.

Why Paimon’s Depiction in Hereditary Is Lame

Peter throws himself out of the attic window. The blue spirit orb/beam we’ve been shown several times enters him and he rises. When he does, he makes the cluck sound Charlie so often did.

After the soliloquy confirmed what I thought was going on, I thought to myself, Well, clearly the cult failed with this host, too…

Charlie is a great character. She’s intensely creepy and well-played. Speaking of the actress, Molly Shapiro is a lovely young woman in real life. In Hereditary, she is made up to look a bit deformed. Based on the film’s title and her character’s appearance, I wrongly expected the family’s dark secret to involve incest. Her character is also socially awkward and implicitly special needs.

charlie

We find out she was the cult’s first attempt at Paimon’s physical manifestation.

Bringing demonic entities into our earthly realm is no easy feat, but the cult of Paimon is off to a bad start.

Then Peter clucks. The woman crowns him and for the first time in a bleak film, the music score turns triumphant, as if the cult of Paimon should feel successful. Again, my inner monologue: that’s it! Two hours and change and the monster clucks and stares off blankly! Toni Collette rendered the performance she did, for this…!

A more ambiguous, subtle interpretation of the end, like maybe the cult will simply have to try a third time (with whom?) to get it right, still disappoints me.

If a hell-king is raised, you damn well better have the payoff be more than a slack-jawed cluck.

Hollywood Marketed Hereditary Wrong

The heart of why Hereditary underwhelmed me is that the film felt so damn indulgent. You can read director Ari Aster discussing Hereditary here. Hearing him, it’s clear the talented man gets his jollies from painstaking displays of uber-artsy critic-baiting.

The blame starts with the suits in Hollywood who allowed this experience to be marketed as a summer blockbuster mainstream horror movie. The hype for Hereditary clogged horror blogs and my social feeds for eight months before it’s release. The trailer pegged it for high quality, slow burning, not reliant on jump scares. This is all true. But what they totally ignored is the weird factor.

I happen to read Cosmic Horror, so I enjoyed seeing the scriptwriters and director try to bring it to life on screen. But it was just too damn weird for America. I think the film should’ve been marketed and released as an indie film. For fuck’s sake, Hereditary screams indie and experimental!

The trailer and hype–especially the comparisons to audiences experiencing The Excorcist–set up an all too mainstream expectation of what this film would be. It was a character study, a family drama, a witchcraft, a haunted house, and a monster film. That’s too busy for Hollywood.

The Cinematography Creates Dread But Runs Long

The cinematography in Hereditary felt masturbatory. To Aster’s credit, I think from beginning to end the sense of dread he accomplishes in the film’s atmosphere is remarkable. While I’ll argue that ultimately his long shots and creepy silent fills hurt the film, I can appreciate good film-making when I see it.

The subtle build-up of tension, disquietude, and genuine dread are, in my opinion, the strongest parts of the film. The reason this serves the film poorly is that it leaves the audience feeling that the 2:07:00 run-time is unjustified at best, maddening at worst.

The Family Drama Focus Tested My Patience

Another element that works against the film, considering once again its marketing as a summer horror blockbuster, is the weight given to the family drama. If I’d been in the mindset for an indie horror experience it might have bothered me less. For the most part, Ari Aster does an excellent job of giving the characters depth. However, I think he  specifically gives the Annie-Peter relationship so much weight that it tips the balance of the film.

The middle of the film loses momentum briefly when we’re given a ten or fifteen minute sequence where Peter has a panic attack at school, Annie delivers her heartbreaking confession of rage to Peter at the dinner scene, and then she has a sleepwalking nightmare in which ants kill Peter.

Stuffed in here, we learn about how Annie tried to abort Peter “any way she could think of,” and that she’s had issues with sleep-walking in the past. This includes a horrific scenario where Annie, Peter, and Charlie wake up drenched in lighter fluid, Annie about to strike a match.

annie scream

Frankly, if the characters were stuffed animals, this is when overstuffing would burst the seams. Annie’s damage is obvious enough from what she tells the Lost Loved Ones support group. The audience needs to know Annie almost set herself and two children on fire. I think this could’ve been done with economy. Instead, it’s tossed in with a maelstrom of other elements in the film.

Where I Lost Trust In Hereditary

The Peter-Annie stuff occurs at least an hour and a half in, about the time when most moviegoers–perhaps expecting a more mainstream experience–get antsy. I did.

Right after the Peter/Ant nightmare, I got sucked out of the movie.

I remembered back to the good (but obvious) plant of Annie finding her mother’s book in the box with a note in it discussing the family’s sacrifice “being worth it.” I thought to myself, Enough character development with Annie and Peter! Is the witchcraft angle even going to pay off? Get to it!

Admittedly, the film answers my request immediately. Annie literally returns to the box and off we go. But, alas, my central point, which is that Hereditary asks too much of its audience’s patience.

I lost trust in the film, trust that a satisfying conclusion was on the way.

Hereditary Demands its Audience Get Over Three Main Humps

  • indulgent filler cinematography
  • overdone family drama conventions
  • the unbalanced structure (the witchcraft “stuff” paying off so late)

It feels odd writing such a seemingly negative review of the movie. Because I honestly did like it. I just think the story is disappointing in film form. I suspect that the “what the fuck did I just watch” reactions I’ve seen people having to the film aren’t said in the good way, marveling at Ari Aster’s cleverness.

To be super frank, I don’t think the ending is hard to figure out, I think it’s hard to care about. I talked about the anticlimactic presentation of Paimon earlier. Alex Wolff, who plays Peter, said this on the topic:

“[Charlie] is a demon. But I feel like it’s so interesting – Ari took the approach that she’s not necessarily evil. She’s actually scared, and she’s just in this circumstance. She’s born this way, and she doesn’t feel connected to the rest of the world. And I think it’s kind of a sick, twisted, true analogy about being on the outside and having a mental disorder.”

This isn’t satisfying to a movie audience. The reason (remember the marketing!) is that we didn’t pay $12 to watch a subtle, cinema verite on emo hell-kings.

Thus, the title of this review.

Hereditary, a fine story, should not have been a film but a novel.

Anyone who reads horror fiction, really in any sub-genre that would apply to this film, can agree that the intellectual exercise the story calls for can be enjoyed and explored with even more depth, and have its thought-provoking anticlimax, in a 450-page novel.

I argue that, much like Charlie and Peter are faulty hosts for Paimon, perhaps the form of novel would’ve been the right flesh for Hereditary to inhabit.

What do you think?

There’s a lot to unpack in Hereditary, and I’m dying to have a conversation about it. Comment to let me know what you think! Am I right that it would be more effective as a novel?

 

 

Where Nightmares Come From, A Must Read for Horror Buffs

Where Nightmares Come FromWhere Nightmares Come From

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a must-read collection of essays for anyone who:
• wants to write horror literature or scripts (or entertainment in various forms)
• wants industry insights that would otherwise take decades of trial/error to learn
• is a connoisseur of horror who wants richer perspective on how creators work

All the essays are well-done. There is plenty to learn from the ones focused on script-writing, even if you’re more interested in horror fiction like me. So do read them. However, based on my tastes and biases as an aspiring horror writer I’ve selected three standout essays from Where Nightmares Come From.

Pixelated Shadows: Urban Lore and the Rise of Creepypasta by Michael Paul Gonzalez

A brilliant, original exploration of how the Internet has paradoxically taken humans back to primal methods of storytelling. By osmosis, it’s also a useful guide on crafting creepy shorts for marketing purposes!

Bringing An Idea To Life Through Language by Mercedes M. Yardley

As a person who has read volumes on crafting characters and finding your writer’s voice, this is by far the most beautiful and effervescent essay I’ve read on the topic. Yardley’s personality is a bonus, though, not a gimmick–this short essay about word choice/character/voice deserves to be taught in Fiction 101s and MFAs.

The Process of a Tale by Ramsey Campbell

If you’re a fiction writer, at some point you’ve no doubt read a story and thought, I wish the author could take me step-by-step through how they pulled this sorcery off! Good news, kids! Ramsey Campbell, horror fiction icon, uses his story “The End of a Summer’s Day” to take us from idea germination to draft-by-draft processes and rewritten passages to final product. The lessons are conveyed with remarkable accessibility and humility.

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HINNOM MAGAZINE ISSUE 006 TOC REVEAL — Gehenna & Hinnom Books

I pre-ordered mine before tomorrow’s release. You should do the same. The industry’s best Cosmic Horror for only $3!

Greetings from the Ether, As a lot of you probably saw in our newsletter this morning, it is time to reveal the table of contents for Hinnom Magazine Issue 006. We have ourselves a stacked issue with immense talent, new and veteran alike. We can’t wait to share this issue with you, and we hope you’ll […]

via HINNOM MAGAZINE ISSUE 006 TOC REVEAL — Gehenna & Hinnom Books

Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, A Review

 

 Bird BoxBird Box by Josh Malerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why did I care about Malorie so much?

That question’s haunted me ever since I put Bird Box down.

I’ve read many post-apocalyptic novels. Some of them had characters I loved and rooted for. Some had characters I despised but through whom I experienced vicariously the darkest sides of human nature. And the worlds they struggled through to survive, though they blur now, were compelling then. Sure, the Flu-ravaged world of The Stand kept me up late into the night; The Road saw me pulling for Father and Son to survive frigid hellscapes en route to the sea.

Malorie, though…

I’m not one for hyperbole or sentimentality, but Malorie had flesh in all 250-something pages–skin in the game, as they say.

Her heart’s desires, her sole-purpose of protecting Boy and Girl, and getting them to a vague sanctuary posited and promised them by a voicemail. Rick. A voicemail from a man named Rick urged her to strive out into a world of horrors, down twenty miles of a Michigan river, so that after four years void of hope, Malorie and Boy and Girl could find some: hope. Written in present-tense, in a tight third-person point-of-view, I felt this urgency–Malorie’s–on every single line.

Maybe I loved her because of the depths she went to in order to protect Boy and Girl, one her child, one not.

You see, in the world Malerman’s created, survivors must go outside blindfolded. Some unknown form of creature, when seen, cause the person to go mad, killing themselves and/or others. It happened to many millions, including Malorie’s parents and sister. During her pregnancy, one of her more cynical housemates offers a solution. Take some chemicals, he says, and blind the newborns as soon as they exit the birth canal. That way, they’ll never be at risk of seeing the creatures to begin with.

Malorie refused.

The majority of the gore that results from one seeing these creatures is conducted off stage, implied (the death of Malorie’s parents, for example), or glossed over with narrative summary via the media discussing the horrors out there. Bird Box is wonderful and claustrophobic in that way–the point of view is so limited that your imagination is required to engage the broader implications. However, Malerman gives us one scene of true horror that involves a child. A dead one. A scene done with quiet mastery. And, not in Malorie’s point of view, serves as a counterpoint to what Malorie’s relationship with Boy and Girl is.

The boy in his Sunday’s best, propped against the headboard in his room, dead from starvation, the rot from his corpse permeating the house.

That image delivered in two sentences by Malerman, walloped an entire universe of heartache for me. Just picture the terror the boy would’ve felt after his parents died. There he is, scared of the boogeyman outside, and waiting for someone to provide him food and guidance. Neither would come. This was one of the most powerful moments I’ve come across in recent fiction.

Malerman providing a concrete example of a child suffering and dying in this world, located mid-book, gives context and gravitas to all of the struggles we’ve seen Malorie undergo to care for and raise Boy and Girl. She raised them well enough to survive to the age of four. Her training them to wake with their eyes closed, or to having almost superhuman powers of hearing, become elevated from cool to read about, to visceral maternal love.

Through thoughts and actions of hers, we learn that Malorie would do anything for these two children. What tugged at my heartstrings for the duration of the novel, though, is Malorie’s terse dialogue–by which we sense that she is keeping the children at arm’s length, in case any members of this survival trio die, the anguish wouldn’t overwhelm her.

Death seems inevitable. What are the odds that a young child, well-trained as Boy and Girl are, won’t take off their blindfolds, or curious to finally see the sun hanging in the sky, peer out a window?

Malorie barks at them.

“Boy, listen!”

“Girl, don’t talk. Listen.”

“What do the two of you hear? Listen!”

“LISTEN.”

The word listen comes to symbolize an external survival mechanism for Malorie. She needs Boy and Girl in many ways. Using their trained sense of hearing for survival on the river happens to be the most immediate. Barking orders at them, keeping them on their toes, is her way of keeping the terror she feels from coursing through their small minds. In short, her gruffness is sublime.

Every page of Bird Box feels immediate, each of Malorie’s two complimentary storylines speeding onward in present tense.

So why do I love Malorie so much?

Because she embodies the wild all-encompassing love of mothers in the trenches–the human mother bear ripping someone to shreds to protect her cubs. Again, I never considered myself a sentimentalist. However, I think Josh Malerman did something in Bird Box that I’ve seen few writers able to accomplish. Frankly, I’ve seen few brave enough to try and risk failing.

He took the concept of unconditional love, more or less a weakened cliche of an idea, and gave it emotional truth. I love Malorie because she embodies, in sharp contrast to the darkness and blindness around her, the brightest and clearest example of the pinnacles of human nature.

Love. Unconditional love.

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Zdzisław Beksiński, Nightmarescape Photographer

The Polish artist Zdislaw Beksinski created masterful work of macabre fantasy. He stated that his artistic aim was to photograph dreams.

My interpretation of this is that he sought to capture the disjointed, disturbing, impressionistic, and fleeting emotional imagery that visits us all at night. Put another way, dreams are sort of meaning soup–upon waking we ladle the broth hoping to catch a noodle or a hunk of meat.

Zdislaw was born in 1929. He finished an architecture degree in Warsaw in 1952. The location and timing of his young manhood leads many to think that WWII would’ve had a profound affect on his psyche; logically it follows that the trauma Hitler inflicted on the world, and the decayed state of Poland in the aftermath of the Holocaust, influenced his dark fantastical realist style of art.

Glancing through Zdislaw’s work though, I think Christianity, and in many ways a positive internalization of it–or to the non-believer, man’s capacity for spirituality allowing him to transcend the evil of worldly flesh–is what made him tick.

Mexican film director Guillermo Del Toro says this about Beksinski:

In the medieval tradition, Beksinski seems to believe art to be a forewarning about the fragility of the flesh – whatever pleasures we know are doomed to perish – thus, his paintings manage to evoke at once the process of decay and the ongoing struggle for life. They hold within them a secret poetry, stained with blood and rust.

Personal accounts of Beksinski pegged him as a pleasant intellectual with quite the sense of humor despite his grim fascinations. He fancied himself an optimist, stating that his work often went misunderstood–morbid horror representing bleakness. However, Beksinski considered his works uplifting and even humorous.

Zdislaw had no interest in the meanings of his paintings, refusing even to title them. I think this is such a wonderful artistic trait because an artist should simply be a conduit. My art philosophy aside, it complements Beksinski’s work harmoniously because his vision was to paint as if photographing dreams.

The interpretation should be left to the viewer of his work because only the individual who has had the dream can truly understand their own subconscious sludge.

Enjoying Zdislaw Beksinski’s work for its macabre beauty is easy. I’m interested to see how people interpret some of his images knowing that he considered them optimistic and humorous.

Find some positive meanings in the images below and share your thoughts in the comments.


I’ll get things started with the first image of a crucified torso.

zdislaw 6.jpg

In the background, the sun bakes the clouds to an orange-blue haze that reminds me of a hellscape on the planet Venus. The wrists are nailed into a cross missing the top portion of its column beam. Behind it leans a clean blue crucifix.

The ragged torso of an individual long-since crucified represents Jesus Christ. Jesus embodies the ultimate sacrifice, the absolution of humankind’s sin.

In the Judeo-Christian world this is the greatest gift ever given. The most merciful act of God, arguably of any god, in that its purpose was to forgive humanity for its sinful nature.

Jesus Christ’s sacrifice in the context of this painting states the following: no matter how fallen the world is–even if God’s chosen Jews are being rounded up and exterminated in concentration camps and Europe is being torn to shreds by Allied and Axis Powers because of it–God’s gift of Christ to redeem humanity persists.

The painting means that it doesn’t matter how incredulous one might be in a moment of staggering evil and carnage like WWII, depicted by the ragged appearance of the headless torso, the decayed bone, the sinew connecting right arm to shoulder about to give, that the redemption remains, right there in the pure blue crucifix behind.

In essence, this image symbolizes that humanity will persevere through any evil, and that deeply flawed as we are, we are good.

If that isn’t positive, I don’t know that is.

 


Now enjoy several more samples of Berksinski’s work.

 

zdislaw 5.jpgzdislaw 4.jpgzdizslaw 3.jpgzdzislaw 2.jpgzdzislaw.jpg

Thoughts?