Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Cinematographer: Pawel Pogorzelski
Producer: Kevin Frakes, Lars Knudsen, and Buddy Patrick
by Jon Cvack
It Follows (2014) ushered in the next era of horror, leading a generation of filmmakers who grew up with the iconic horror series like Halloween (1979), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1997), etc. and decided to apply high craft filmmaking to the genre. Since its debut, we've received The VVitch (2015), It Comes At Night (2017), and allegedly The Babadook (2014). Hereditary has been the latest inclusion; topping critics mid-year lists of, often within the top three per year.
The film follows miniature artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) whose schizophrenic mother had recently passed away. She lives in a beautiful home in the middle of the woods with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and two children, their horny pot-smoking teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and androgynous and aspiring artist daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Moments after burial Steve receives word that their mother’s grave has been desecrated, though she keeps the information from Annie to avoid upsetting her. Annie struggles with her mother’s death, heading to a local group meeting for those struggling with the recently deceased. We learn that Annie’s family has a history of mental illness; eventually disowning her mother to protect herself and family.
Charlie begins to experience strange aberrations over the next few days; hearing sounds and seeing her grandmother’s shape within the dark corners of her room (which, it turns out, was the element Barry Jenkins was celebrating). During school, a pigeon crashes into the window and dies and Charlie cuts off the head with scissors to create another one of her peculiar doll figurines. Walking in the woods one day, she comes across her grandmother sitting in a triangle of flame before her mother chases her down, snapping Charlie out of the hallucination. Shapiro is an incredibly weird looking person, with bags under her eyes that make her fifteen-year-old self look somewhat similar to the grandmother she grieves over.
At school, Peter is infatuated with one of his classmates, attending a party later that night where he hopes to win her over with some weed. Not wanting to leave Charlie at home alone, Annie forces Peter to bring her along. They arrive at the party where the other kids are cutting up psychedelic mushrooms and making brownies. Either way, when Peter invites his crush to go smoke some weed, he sends Charlie to have some cake, who then starts tripping, struggling to breathe (as most first-timers might be familiar with). Peter rushes her home through the fog lined streets, seeing an animal in the road, causing him to swerve while Charlie’s head is out the window, gasping for air, then smacking into a telephone pole and decapitating her; providing one of the most memorable images from recent horror.
The event forces both Peter and Annie to fall further victim to their mental issues, as both begin to see strange aberrations throughout the house. It’s when thinking of how to describe this that I realize how hard it is to describe horror films about mental illness. At a cursory glance, we have films like Black Swan (2010), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and Antichrist (2009) that drift back and forth between reality and the character's hallucinations. Good psychological horror completely muddies this line, preventing you from ever knowing what is what.
I was left thinking for a few moments during the film about makes for a timeless horror film? What makes the greatest horror films become classics - Jaws (1975), The Shining (1980), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Scream, The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street - next to so many others that require, at the very least, a Google search to discover on some best-of list? Writing this about four days after seeing the film, my best guess is that most of these films remain situated in reality; whether the setting, characters, or overall situation, allowing the stories to have a more significant connection to our lives.
I’m not the biggest fan of psychological horror, as I think it’s too easy to get abstract without justification. It’s why a film like Identity (2003) could have been one of the greats if Mangold didn’t allow for its facile and solipsistic conclusion to destroy its position. Similar to my problem with Surrealism is that anything and everything is allowed; and while some can take this to the extreme and destroy their story (like Identity) others are able to find the balance (like Jacob's Ladder (1990) and Bug (2006)).
In Hereditary’s case, Toni Collette embodied the persona of a disturbed person. We watch as she goes from a regular grieving mother to a totally insane person, and the world follows right along with it. After Charlie’s death, there’s a dinner scene where Toni does that typical thing that dinner scenes do to demonstrate grieving people in having them gently fork their food while the others chow down. Her son Peter then asks what’s wrong and Annie unleashes a thundering castigation in which the logic of her reasoning takes a number of positions. It’s sensical enough for us to think maybe it's grief, and yet given what we've heard about the history of mental illness, it seems more plausible that the tragedy contributed or expedited a psychological breakdown.
Annie meets another woman and spiritual medium at the meetings named Joan (Ann Dowd) who invites her back to her apartment to talk things out. We learn that Annie used to sleepwalk, going so far as to cover both her own body and Steve and Peter’s while asleep, lighting a match to burn them alive, which fortunately woke her up just before she completed the act. Later Annie meets up with Joan who talks about how through a Ouji board she was able to connect to her late son. The scene is one of the weaker of the films, in which a glass moves suddenly and a message is written on a chalkboard with no one touching it (though this might have been the intention).
Annie believes that Charie’s spirit haunts the house and is now malevolent. Seeing terrifying drawings in Charlie’s old sketchbook, she attempts to burn it, which lights her sleeve on fire. From here on out, we have no idea what is a hallucination and what is actual, as when she covers the book in lighter fluid and tells Steve to burn it, Steven then erupts in flames and burns to death; which I’m assuming was a fantasy and that Annie carried out during one of her somnambulist episodes.
Peter descends just as quick, and Alex Wolff shows us his incredible range. Distraught by killing Charlie, his mind also deteriorates, leading to a brilliant scene in a classroom where his paranoia - or Charlie’s spirit - takes over and he slams his head into the desk; breaking his nose in the process. He begins seeing Charlie’s ghost throughout the house and tensions grow between him and his mom, culminating in a bizarre climax that leads him to being crowned a King of Hell.
My friend said it best in that the film is best see in theaters, utilizing a sound design which makes it seem as though the theater next door is playing too loudly, shaking the room; in fact, while revisiting this film at home with some friends who've never seen it, they thought my neighbors were playing music. The droning sound grows throughout the film, until going full blast during the climactic moment and you realize how powerful it’s integration was - never staying on for too long, making you wonder if you’re hearing things from the movie or not. This goes for a lot of the dialogue as well, in which voices randomly pop in from single speakers from all directions, causing a strange confusion when we see a voice talking into the camera while we’re hearing it from behind. The random sounds and voices seem an effective attempt to mimic the schizophrenic episodes each of the characters is experiencing.
While I might have taken issue with the film’s over-reliance on the mental breakdown to excusing the surrealist imagery, it was combined the story with a satanic cult that grounded it at least a reasonable amount of reality. Taking a stab at the ending, it seems as though their mother and Joan were part of some satanic cult; likely originated through the mother’s mental illness, which causes them to sacrifice people. Annie exhibited the same symptoms and Joan cast a spell on her to try and kill Peter. I’m not sure if Peter survived the fall in the end or died; seeming to serve as a Halloween throwback that worked. If it wasn’t all a mental breakdown, it was plausible that the devil and spirits it controlled were able to manipulate the environment and produce the inexplicable images.
The ending reminded me a bit of Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009) and its Satanic resolution, though while that film seemed to toss that on as a final firework, Hereditary interweaves these elements into the narrative; demanding a rewatch. It seems that the title could, therefore, lead to two possibilities - both inheriting the illness, or inheriting the throne to Satan.
SECOND VIEWING NOTE: Having written this after an initial viewing and revisited the film a month or so ago, I would shift this later point. I'm convinced the film is not at all supernatural but rather following the complete mental breakdown of Annie and her two children. Annie states that her mother had schizophrenia, meaning that both Charlie and Steve could - and seem to - have inherited it (thus, the name - Hereditary). All of the supernatural elements in the film could arguably be based on this mental illness. On the other hand, Peter never exhibits any symptoms. He doesn't see aberrations and ghosts and is suspect of what the others are experiencing.
It's arguable that every supernatural element in this film is a hallucination. The dancing lights, seeing the grandmother on fire, Annie cutting her head off with a piano wire. If you step back, it's arguable that none of this happened and that what triggered the schizophrenia was the tragedy; that is, losing Charlie and their grandmother back to back. For instance, when Steve is lit on fire - it's edited in a way to be jarring but it doesn't take much to deduce that Annie carried out her somnambulist nightmare. From her perspective, Steve erupted in flames. In reality, she covered him in gasoline and lit him on fire. Peter was not at all possessed in the classroom and made to bang his head into the desk so much as falling victim to an episode and then banging his head into his desk. There's no reason to believe this was some supernatural demon.
When discussing the film with others, I notice people struggle to defend anything as definitively supernatural; which can't be explained by someone having hallucinations. The best I get is the Ouji board, but I don't think a moving glass of water suggests much more than Joan playing an old fashioned trick that mediums of this sort had often fooled with their customers. It doesn't make to suggest she moved the piece or the glass but from the perspective of Annie - similar to Steve's death - she thought it moved on its own.
If this is all real, I'm left on the fence about what to think. There is no longer a blurred line between reality and the supernatural. There are no ghosts. We are rather in the mind of incredibly disturbed people. Meaning that we're being entertained by other peoples' mental sickness. Then again, it might be the most effective film that immerses the viewer within this type of disease; comparable to how Midsommar (2019) portrayed hallucinogenic drugs. My main issue is that by never removing us from the situation, there is no sympathy. But not every knowing for sure, we're simply left to wonder.
BELOW: One of the best death scenes from 21st century horror
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