WARNING: Full spoilers for Hereditary and graphic images are included in this article.
It takes a special type of fear to evoke laughter. This is a lesson that took time for me to learn. When I first saw Ari Aster’s magnificent, innards-shreddingly-frightening film Hereditary in theatres, I became increasingly annoyed by brief outbursts of laughter from audience members during the final twenty minutes of the film. As Annie’s headless body sailed up and into the glowing treehouse, gliding unhindered as if drawn by spectral wires, giggles erupted. It wasn’t until months later, on a second viewing, that I understood these reactions. There’s something about the way Hereditary handles its storytelling that, once tension explodes into action, incites a fear so intense, so discomforting, and so sinister in its unfamiliarity as to be inexpressible by a scream. We scream because fear has made silence impossible. We laugh because screaming no longer makes sense. We are beyond salvation. Paimon has been crowned.
Hereditary accomplishes this the same way any filmmaker accomplishes anything remarkable: with a camera and some folks making damn good use of it. The devil is, pardon the pun, in the details of Aster’s film – and no detail is accidental. While essays could certainly be written on Hereditary’s meticulous set design, costuming, lighting, effects, and general mise-en-scene, I think that the most important element lies in the film’s cinematography (executed with tremendous skill by Pawel Pogorzelski). Camerawork is the skeleton key to the film’s aesthetics and scare tactics.
The subtle realization that the family is being watched creeps up our spine, intensified by the knowledge that we too are helpless. To complicate things further, as the audience we too are the watchers: the terror and terrorized.
Whereas many entries in the horror genre seem to rely on a bombastic shooting style – the cinematic equivalent of shock-and-awe airstrikes – Hereditary’s camerawork can only be described as patient in the eeriest sense of the word. The lens lingers; waiting in halls, in bedrooms, above offices and out windows. Empty shots are held for long moments. During many pivotal moments, cuts are few and far between. Shots tighten and pan gradually. Uneasy, our minds wander: “What are we supposed to be seeing?” Characters step into frame and the camera gently follows, not matching the speed of their movements but keeping them in sight. Gliding around corners. Creeping. These methods make even the most mundane scenes agonizing. The subtle realization that the family is being watched creeps up our spine, intensified by the knowledge that we too are helpless. To complicate things further, as the audience we too are the watchers: the terror and terrorized.
Aster and Pogorzelski’s deftness and restraint therefore not only differentiates their film from a surplus of mediocre horror, but manages to instill fear solely through cinematography – a fear greatly intensified when the same tactics are applied to the film’s explicit scares. “Show, don’t tell,” is a classic filmmaking motto. Hereditary’s approach to horror seems to be “Show, don’t shock.” Rather than jumping from an unsuspecting victim to a beast leaping from the shadows, Pogorzelski prefers a slow pan. We hold for a couple painstaking seconds on a character’s widening eyes and trembling jawline until the shot swivels, revealing a dreadful tableau. An example: as the demonic Annie perches on the ceiling, out of his view, Peter hears a creak. He hesitates, sweat-drenched and paralyzed, but as he turns his head the camera follows to unveil a grinning man, completely nude, standing menacingly in the door.
Other times Hereditary forces us to stare down the scare for far longer than we’d like. Aster coerces us into pondering the frightful image we have been forced to face until we simply cannot bear its presence any longer. Seconds feel like hours in these scenes as we memorize and imagine and comprehend the spectre we confront. We are given the time to scare ourselves. In an early scene, when Annie flicks off the light in her workshop, her mother’s apparition appears in the corner of the room. She does not shriek, or snarl, or hurl herself at her daughter. She simply stands there; chin high and shoulders back, smiling. The shot is held, until we briefly cut to Annie’s confused and frightened eyes, and back to her mother. We realize something: her smile isn’t warm. It’s knowing. Elsewhere, Hereditary nauseates. Charlie’s head, ripped bluntly from her neck, tongue sun-swelled and eyes crawling with ants, remains onscreen in full visceral glory for nearly ten seconds. We are not shocked. We are shown. Hereditary knows that if an image is truly terrifying, its mere continued presence will suffice to shock and much more. Aster and Pogorzelski torture us. “You asked for blood!” the film seems to bellow, “Look on my works and despair!”
Due to the patience of the cinematography onscreen, the few instances of dramatic cutting are made all the more effective. One of my favorite moments in the film is a classic shot-reverse-shot series with a twist. As Annie and Peter scream at one another, the camera grows energetic, flicking between their faces. All of a sudden, Peter appears drenched in sweat. Back to Annie. She too is soaking. Something crackles. A glow, a match! It dawns on us just as the flames erupt, a horrible realization that she is about to immolate herself and her son, just as she had previously discussed with Joan. We are allowed to unravel the horror by recognizing the changes in a series of symmetrical shots and recalling earlier exposition. By the time we do, we practically feel the paint thinner singeing our nostrils, and panic sets in.
“You asked for blood!” the film seems to bellow, “Look on my works and despair!”
After nearly two hours of patient terror – measured yet immediate, grisly yet cerebral – it should have come as no surprise to me that Annie’s corpse drew anxious giggles. Hereditary puts its audience through quite the ringer. Our genre expectations are subverted. The curtain has been pulled back, and Aster has turned our own minds against us. Pogorzelski’s camerawork invites and later coerces the audience into participation via observation, terrifying us all the while. In doing so, Hereditary renders us as absolutely powerless as the doomed Grahams. What else is one to do then, as a carcass rises and laughter with it, but consider it evidence of the supernatural power of excellent cinematography?