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Why is 'Hereditary' such a hit with critics — and an apparent flop with audiences?

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

The report cards are in, and the critically lauded "Hereditary" is one crummy letter grade away from having failed the average American moviegoer.

The average American moviegoers apparently expected a different/scarier/better horror movie than this one. Are the critics who admired it just a bunch of buttheads? Are multiplex audiences too jaded to appreciate its bizarre, slow-building atmospheric tension?

This year's Sundance Film Festival hit stars Toni Collette as a mother crazed with grief and plagued with family secrets. As compiled by CinemaScore, the exit-polling firm in the business of quantifying "movie appeal" among opening-night audiences, reactions to writer-director Ari Aster's brooding, methodical creep-out averaged out to a grim D+ score.

It's not "Avengers: Infinity War" (grade A), in other words. For comparison's sake, Darren Aronofsky's notorious mind-bender "mother!" garnered a rare F score. (It's worth seeing, by the way.)

One of my favorite horror films of recent years, the early New England-set supernatural tale "The Witch," received a telling C-. Why "telling"? Because a C- tells the distributor that things will be dropping off quickly, box office-wise.

With "The Witch," I was so firmly in writer-director Robert Eggers' grip I didn't think twice about whether anybody would love the movie like I did. Most didn't, especially those who felt tricked by the trailers into thinking "The Witch" was a Puritan thrill ride, delivering massive, cathartic scares.

I think the same is true of "Hereditary." The marketing sells it, hard, but it's too wormy and clammy to offer audiences a conventional, rousing catharsis.

Distributed by A24, "The Witch" and "Hereditary" share some personality traits that may shed some light on those discouraging exit-poll grades. They're both ardent believers in developing their stories gradually. They're less about relentless jump scares and more about psychological ordeals. They're both destabilizing and willfully disorienting in ways that don't appeal to the "Saw" and "Hostel" champions, yet the film is a fairly punishing experience designed, its maker says, to mess with audience expectations and "betray you on every level."

I knew "Hereditary"'s mass appeal was more like niche appeal, at best, when I heard from my old pal John, a longtime security guard who worked down at the loading dock entrance of the Chicago Tribune, back when the paper was still in Tribune Tower.

"So boooooring," he wrote. "There was a collective groan from the audience at the ArcLight. Great idea poorly executed. At least a half hour too long. Almost as boring as 'The Witch!'"

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