Here there be spoilers...
The debut feature from writer-director Ari Aster, Hereditary presents for our consideration the story of the Graham family, who have just lost one of their own. In this case, the mother of Annie (Toni Colette), who lived with her and husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) as she waned. Annie’s eulogy at the funeral and an abortive attempt to participate in a support circle for the grieving reveals her own mixed feelings over her mother’s passing, her real sense of loss and confusion mixed with lingering resentment and estrangement. Annie attributes to her mother suspicious and manipulative qualities, with a lingering trauma dogging their history after Annie’s apparently mental ill brother committed suicide after accusing their mother of putting voices in his head. Charlie, who seems to be developmentally-delayed, had become dependent on her grandmother. Annie herself is consumed by a large art project she’s constructing for an upcoming exhibition, creating doll house-like recreations of her own life surrounds, whilst Peter weathers late adolescent angst by subsisting in a pot-haze bubble and pining for classmate Bridget (Mallory Bechtel), and Steve seems to be used to living with the faint, constant hum of low-key distress about the house.
Whilst sorting through her mother’s belongings, Annie finds tomes on spiritualism and a bizarre note offering condolences for terrible events awaiting the family, a price that must be paid for an eventual, glorious end. Grandmother’s auguries seem to be fulfilled when Charlie is gruesomely decapitated in a freakish accident, when her brother is trying to rush her to the hospital after her nut allergy is triggered. In a daze following the accident, Peter returns home and goes to bed, leaving his sister’s body to be found by his mother. In the agonized period afterwards, Annie’s resentment towards her son festers and then erupts at the dinner table. She tries to gain solace by burying herself in her work, for which she recreates her daughter’s death scene in miniature, and then finds friendship with Joanne (Ann Dowd), whom she meets at the support group, and who fervently encourages her to try spiritualism to commune with Charlie's spirit. Annie seems to make contact, but soon begins to suspect she may have merely enabled the unseen but implacable force stalking her family, whilst Steve becomes increasingly convinced his wife is going mad. Peter seems to have pick up Charlie’s allergy after her death, suggesting some transference has taken place.
Hereditary belongs squarely in the company of a recent run of ambitious, moody, would-be serious attempts to marry down-and-dirty horror movie business with themes and stylistics more pensive and contemplative than many commonly associate with the genre. This mode can be spotted by the copious use of droning, eerie music to enforce a mood of omnipresent anxiety, many scenes of character wandering in apparently dissociative bewilderment or anxiety around shadowy environs, long, slow zoom shots onto objects of no special importance, and a general emphasis on familial or sociological worries so people who don’t usually like horror movies can describe it all in symbol-laden terms. Hereditary is also strongly reminiscent of a certain type of classy horror film popular in the 1960s and ‘70s: Aster’s stated influences include Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Don’t Look Now (1973) alongside Ingmar Bergman. I was also reminded of some of the immediate children of that kind of posh horror movie, like Richard Loncraine’s Full Circle (1976), as well as aspects of Steven Spielberg’s Something Evil (1972) as a family comes under the thumb of an evil influence as the mother might be edging into madness, and Rod Hardy’s Thirst (1979) in theme of discovering a legacy urging hapless inheritors towards an unwanted apotheosis. The feeling of impending doom descending upon a prosperous bourgeois family as cursed youth consumes the elders is reminiscent of Lindsay Vickers’ unnerving The Appointment (1981).
The subject here is family tragedy and the perversities of grief, but the only member of the family who’s described in any depth is Annie, and that’s mostly thanks to Colette’s bravura, perhaps even over-indulged performance, and yet she proves by the film’s last act to be essentially a bystander in her own narrative. Annie and Charlie both have artistic gifts they use to mediate their experience, although Annie’s talent proves to be recreating the scenes of a mystery she can’t unlock, whilst Charlie’s sketch pad charts stations on the path to hell and to try and dispose of it entails self-immolation. Aster throws in flourishes that feel reminiscent of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), like Charlie’s glimpse of a weird ritual being performed in the leafy environs of her family’s upscale estate. This moment makes no sense at all, as Annie swoops in to grab Charlie and fails to notice the fact there’s someone burning wicker men on her lawn, and it’s really only there to provide something like juice to the idling motor of this tale. The notions about sick family dynamics are faintly trite – distracted, guilty mothers are the unwitting pawns of the Devil. No, not the Devil; “King Paimon” is the more pagan-flavoured ring-in here, presumably to try and tone down the Rosemary’s Baby debt.
Aster plays lengthy games in keeping the audience wondering just what kind of threat the family is facing and what motives it, with discursions into life-after-death enigmas and mooting the possibility Annie is a medium compelled by possibly murderous entities during her occasional bouts of menacing sleepwalking, during one of which she supposedly nearly set fire to her kids. Aster’s delaying tactics in this regard do make the film moderately compelling in trying to comprehend just what’s going on. Aster nudges the audience constantly with the affected correlation of Annie’s artistic pursuits with the drama being played out, the sense of an unseen force pushing everything along to a predestined end rhymed with an artist’s urgent attempts to re-craft messy life into controlled simulations. Like many ideas in the film, this is coherent but also never feels particularly vital to the matter at hand, which is watching Annie all but peel off her own skin in the process of enacting her rages and pain, whilst Peter proves to be, unwittingly (and witlessly), the true axis of the story. But he’s such a vaguely conceived figure you’re barely aware he’s in the film; his only defining features are his pot habit and his unfulfilled crush. Which might, god knows, be the point. Byrne’s Steve is even vaguer, but serves the regulation generic stereotype of the patriarch whose staunch male logicality denies feminine insight as lunacy only to be proven nastily wrong – just how is one of the film’s neater sleights.
Hereditary lopes along for over two hours, an ungodly amount of time for such a narrative to play out in spite of the occasional arresting shot. When Aster finally gets to his big reveal, it proves to be disappointingly generic, and is justified as a metaphor for unwanted familial baggage that’s pretty hackneyed. Watching Hereditary reminded me of some other recent horror movies in this mould, where the cryptic drip-feed of the story matched to interludes of striking yet curiously familiar imagery and story twists, which begins to seem after a while less a case of a filmmaker successfully rendering the marrow of their drama eerily opaque or surreal, than exploiting this style as an excuse to deploy diorama-like excerpts from other horror films in preciously framed settings. A model that transforms into a real setting out of The Shining (1980). Ants crawling out of a mouth a la Prince of Darkness (1987). Hideously committed self-mutilation out of Hellraiser (1987). Scenes of séances and creepy Ouija board action out of dozens of films. The finale calls for a sense of operatic despair or exultation – what would your reaction be to discovering your entire family’s been slaughtered in the name of anointing you as the human vessel of a god? I remember the scene in Damien – Omen II (1976), a not-great film that was nonetheless better than this one, when Damien finally learned his true identity at last, screaming at the sky in horror and awe in his demand to understand why. That was memorable in a way nothing here is.
I get the feeling Aster wanted to make a drama about coping mechanisms that deliver people from immediate angst but also blind them to oncoming crises. Everyone in the Graham family, save the simple Charlie, is defined a tunnel-vision approach to getting through life until they’re forced to pay attention to uncomfortable truths. But I found the Grahams both sketchy as characters and subjected to unavoidable signposting, and the weirdness in them and around them spelt out over and over in terms that ultimately strangles any real sense of tension or mad grandeur in the cradle. Nor is there much chance for ambiguity allowed to hatch out; Aster insists on letting the audience know early on that something truly freaky is going on, and it’s not just in Annie’s head. Hereditary shares another trait with too many other films of this ilk of late, in that it’s always on message, stylistically and tonally. Even a boozy teenage party feels like it’s been run through a filter to rob it of any messy liveliness. Where Aster does display a good touch is with deploying alarming imagery, like Peter seeing his own reflection smile back at him in opposition to his own perpetually punch-drunk look, and a climactic vision of Annie laboriously sawing off her own head has an authentically beggaring punch. But the very end, with headless bodies floating about, comes perilously close to silliness in the way it violates the strained, minimalist seriousness of what’s come before.