Hereditary is a supernatural horror film written and directed by Ari Aster. The film is hard to summarise as the plot involves lots of elements; the death of a family member, an accident and death of another family member, the associated grief, heartbreak, and despondency that comes with mourning. But wait; there’s also allergies and anaphylaxis, mental illness, witchcraft, and cults! These components can sound unrelated or even random but thankfully the pieces fit together to create a satisfying horror movie.
Toni Collette plays Annie, her mother Ellen has recently passed away but when one of her children also dies, she mentally breaks down. At the recommendation of Joan (a woman she meets at a grief counselling session) Annie uses clairvoyance to contact her deceased child but she soon discovers that Joan is not who she says she is. It turns out that Joan knew her mother and Ellen’s friends have other motivations for befriending Annie and her family.
On the posters and in the trailer, Hereditary was described as “This generation’s Exorcist” which is an apt description since it’s slow to start and very scary the first time you see it (but the horror is lessened in each subsequent viewing). The fact that this movie faithfully portrays demonology and witchcraft also adds to the similarities with the William Friedkin classic. There was a divide between mainstream critics and regular cinemagoers when this movie was released with a slight backlash against the perceived overrating by critics. I can see why people would not be drawn to this film as the aforementioned contents seem very arbitrary especially if you haven’t experienced them first-hand. In a similar way to watching The Exorcist as an agnostic atheist, the effect of that film is much different if you’re religious. As someone who has had similar encounters to those portrayed in Hereditary, I enjoyed this film very much.
If you’ve ever known someone with dissociative identity disorder, depression, schizophrenia or someone who dabbles or is well-versed in voodoo, hoodoo, witchcraft, or spells, much of what’s depicted in the film is accurate. When someone is both mentally ill but has knowledge of black magic, the lines between insanity and necromancy can become blurred and this is conveyed very well. Hereditary shows that artistic talent is inherited (both mother and daughter sculpt and create art for instance) and so too is mental illness, and maybe having a spiritual gift is also handed down. The film also references both voodoo and synchronicity; maybe you’re doing the unwitting bidding of something otherworldly without noticing (Charlie removing the pigeon’s head and later losing her own) although it could just be some filmic foreshadowing.
As The Babadook did, this film convincingly portrays a schizophrenic’s mood-swings such as a mother waking their kid up in the middle of the night with strange plans and ideas. This movie also suggests that mental illness (the delirium of seeing ants), an artistic mind (seeing loved ones in the shapes of shadows), and spirituality (seeing a light signifying contact from the afterlife – specifically the transference of the soul) are on the same scale. Maybe I’m biased because of personal experiences but this film is very original and something that hasn’t been previously tackled by a Hollywood film-maker.
Like I said, there are elements that confused some movie-goers when this film was released, for instance the words “Satony”, “Zazas”, and “Liftoach Pandemonium” are written on the walls. If you’ve ever read about Aleister Crowley, words that sound like nonsense to most people are used as conjuration (although I’m sure the real language is kept well hidden). In Hereditary these couple of odd-looking words are used to summon Paimon, one of 72 demons from the spell book known as the Lemegeton. These words are intriguing when you first see them but they don’t have the level of mystery as a genuine sigil, but that being said, even the Seal of Paimon (which appears throughout the film on jewellery and on walls) doesn’t have an unnerving appearance, in fact it looks like a New Age symbol. Most of the scares therefore, are down to the directing coupled with the eerie score and of course the acting talents of Toni Collette. I have to also mention Annie’s daughter Charlie (played by Milly Shapiro) who makes a clicking sound with roof of mouth which when repeated post-mortem acts as an unnerving callback like the clapping of the hand in The Conjuring.
Toni Collette is outstanding in this film, she has now appeared in two of the best horror debuts by first-time directors (The Sixth Sense is the other) and she is integral to each film’s emotional tone. When Annie blurts out that she didn’t want her son, it’s unexpected and significant and yet it’s delivered very subtly (similar to Patricia Clarkson in Sharp Objects). Collette’s wide-eyed defence of her “sleep-walking”, her breaking down and crying “I want to die” after her child is killed, everything Toni does in this movie is a showcase of her skills as an actor. Her son Peter is played by Alex Wolff and he also does a good job being a guilty yet terror-stricken teenager. The pair also butt heads at the dinner table which makes for a brilliantly realistic scene.
I will acknowledge that there’s quite a bit that doesn’t make sense in this film. If you take the title to mean suffering from the same genetic disorder, or inheriting mental illness, then you’d expect the grandmother to be mentally ill, the mother to be mentally ill, and also the daughter to be mentally ill but she isn’t. If you take “Hereditary” to mean the passing down of occult powers, then again the grandmother, mother, and daughter would all be privy to occult practices but they aren’t. If the film (specifically the actions of Annie) alludes to insanity, it still doesn’t explain how someone can attach themselves to a wall or ceiling like an arachnid or float in mid-air like a superhero? A much smaller issue is that if Annie is an artist who creates miniature houses and tiny interiors, she’d need a shed-load of wood-working and sewing equipment but there’s only artist’s paints in her room. There’s also the fact that Gabriel Byrne who plays the father (and a doctor) at one point says “what language is even that?” – hopefully a touch of humourous irony rather than incorrect grammar.
When Annie scurries around on the walls and ceiling followed by her banging her head on the attic door, this is genuinely disturbing and even though some of these ideas (standing still in the background or creeping around without considering gravity) have been used in many films, Aster keeps the supernatural goings-on firmly in the real world. I will say however, that after the self-decapitation, we’re left with nothing besides naked cult members worshipping Paimon (played by extras or lesser actors) which isn’t very chilling at all. After Annie’s scuttling around, this end is a bit of an anti-climax. For me, old people smiling is very much in the same league as It Follows: it’s potentially scary as long as you can’t see their expressions (which unfortunately you can).
When Peter becomes Paimon (who is supposed to be a knowledgeable magician riding a camel to the sound of trumpets) he looks bored or confused (hardly the personality of a demon) and grandma’s friend Joan refers to him as “Charlie” rather than “Paimon” which confuses matters further. The “crowning” finale is a let-down after all the build-up; if a demon succeeds in taking over someone’s body, if someone’s entire family has been beheaded, exhumed, and burnt, shouldn’t we feel something for them at the end? Or is the triviality of life something that’s alluded to by the Judy Collins song that plays during the credits?
The fact that I’m continually questioning what the film is really about is proof that this isn’t your bog-standard horror film. There’s a house, a tree house, and miniature houses in Hereditary; are they a reference to the houses in Astrology or are life-size houses miniatures to a higher-being? When Peter raises his hand in class, is his body being taken over by a demon or is he having a seizure (which would be yet more proof of a genetic disease of the brain)? Hereditary explores concepts such as mental illness, as well as sacrifices and rituals in a way that seems both naturalistic and outlandish and that’s down to Ari Aster’s writing and direction. It’s also quite a novel concept outside of Shyamalan and Raimi movies that a friendly-looking, little old lady has ulterior motives and is anything but innocent. I have to say however, that the main reason to watch this film is to witness Toni Collette’s acting talent. Whether you recognise this story or are repulsed by it, you can surely agree that Collette holds this film together with her powerhouse performance? Stream Hereditary on Amazon Prime Video and see if you agree with me.
Annie Are You Okay?