Director: Ari Aster
Writer: Ari Aster
Stars: Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne
As a person who is actively on the hunt for a film that’ll terrify me like the ones from my childhood, Hereditary, which has been getting some monstrous, mostly positive word of mouth following it’s release had great promise indeed. It’s been billed ‘The Exorcist’ of this generation, the scariest horror film in years and armed with this sensationalist feedback, I just had to head along to the theatre and watch it.
What’s my verdict? Well, it’s certainly creepy in parts, no doubt about it, unnerving and damn right disturbing in others, but ultimately, it’s not really that scary. I’ve seen it described as an art house film with horror elements and I think that’s the perfect description for what Ari Aster has delivered. Hereditary is a predominantly slow burn, intimate family affair, packed with symbolism that explores a wide range of themes. Most notably, grief, emotional trauma and also family demons. The latter takes on a whole new meaning in the final act.
When we enter the Graham family’s life, it’s immediately following the death of Ellen, the mother/grandmother. It’s established pretty quickly that the death hasn’t had a great impact on any of them. Annie (Toni Collette), her daughter, gives a fairly dispassionate eulogy, openly admitting that their relationship was strained. Peter (Alex Wolff), the stoner son, has the emotional range of an apple, whilst Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the daughter, is an oddity of a child. She was apparently the closest to Ellen, but appears incapable of expressing any emotion. Her father, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), comforts his children, but is fairly indifferent to the whole thing.
Like I said previously, Aster heavily utilises symbolism to give hints at where the story is heading. He fills the family’s household and a particularly memorable telephone pole with the symbol of Paimon and odd scribbled words. I’ve since discovered that many of the words, presumably left by the mysterious ritualist Ellen, are incantations used to conjure demons. There’s recurring fire ants and a harikari pigeon that signify death and ominous tidings. You really don’t realise their importance, despite them being routinely highlighted, and the significance of what he’s doing until the very end, when he reveals all.
Paimon, incidentally, is a massively important figure in Hereditary. His symbol is everywhere and it’s this demonic entity that shapes the narrative of the Graham’s and drives the entire plot. Historically, he favoured a male body, had a connection with artistry and blunt honesty. These are all elements that manifest themselves as the film progresses.
For instance, Annie thrusts herself deep into her incredibly detailed model making, the house is littered with miniature creations of the Graham’s life. It’s pretty clear that she uses this a grieving process, certainly when her daughter meets a tragic end. She’s an incredibly talented artist, but there’s a deeper symbolism at play. Young Charlie also has her own distinctive art. She scribbles strange sketches in her book and decapitates a dead pigeon to finish a bizarre bit of doll making ingenuity. This only further adds to the bizarreness of her personality, as well as the families connection to the demon that appears to plague them.
The ending, with a neat piece of doll (and decapitation) symmetry, again hinting at the art connection, reveals that Charlie had been marked by her grandmother from the beginning. A fact that was hinted at earlier with a throwaway line.
Away from the undercurrent of intelligent symbolism and demons is an interesting insight into grief, guilt and maybe even a hint of mental health for good measure. Annie tells a grief support group about her family’s history of mental illness. Her father starved himself to death, her brother hanged himself and her mother had a personality disorder. This seems like a throwaway moment, but again grows to prominence later. When Charlie is decapitated after a disastrous night out with her brother, her mother flings herself further into model making, bottling up her grief, before ultimately becoming embroiled with Joan (Ann Dowd), a woman with a nasty, little secret.
This is the turning point for her and the film. You see, Joan was a friend of Ellen and a fellow devil worshiper. She doesn’t reveal this fact to her new acquaintance, of course.
But what she does do is introduce a strange ouija ritual which opens up a can of worms that are never shut again. When the shit hits the fan and the film turns fully to the paranormal, her husband immediately assumes his wife is having a mental breakdown. Which is a perfectly reasonable assumption, certainly given the family history mentioned previously. He might even have been right, but he does nothing to stop her deranged dive into playing the medium, an act that ultimately destroys the remaining family she has left. Steve meets a predictable, gruesome, fiery end and Annie’s fate is even worse. I won’t go into great detail with that one, because frankly, I’ve tried to erase it from my memory.
That leaves Peter, who’s arguably the most unremarkable member of the family. I mentioned previously that Ellen marked, or let’s be more frank, had her granddaughter possessed with Paimon from the very beginning. I also mentioned that demons preference for a male body and it’s poor old Peter’s that he takes. The last five minutes of this film are well up there within the most bizarre I’ve ever watched. Peter is flanked with naked ritualists as he makes his way up to a treehouse and his soul appears to be swapped or amalgamated with that of his sisters in a strange ritual led by good old Joan.
I’ll briefly touch upon the performances before finishing my amateur demonology course come movie review.
Hereditary is really the Toni Collette show. She’s absolutely incredible as the grief stricken mother and plays off Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne and Milly Shapiro wonderfully, whilst displaying just about every emotion humanely possible. There’s quiet, reflective moments in the car, angry outbursts at the dinner table and pure emotional hysteria as the realisation of what’s going on hits home. I thought Wolff was fantastic too. I presume he’s not a stoner in real life and the guilt within him was palpable. Shapiro did decent enough, her character was decapitated before the halfway mark, but she did enough to make her invisible ghostly presence pack a punch. Byrne floated in and out the film but had me in stitches with some of his lines.
I quite liked the cinematography throughout and the way they utilised the tight hallway that led to the bedrooms. The house felt permanently dark and claustrophobic, which as you can imagine, added a fair bit to the uneasiness.
I feel like the hysterical critical reaction to this film spoiled my enjoyment just a little. I went in thinking it was some terrifying, out and out horror film, when in reality it’s a markedly different beast. I’ve said time and again that I’m Nolan fan and I love cerebral storytelling, films that challenge an audience member to ponder what they just watched can only be a positive thing. The trouble I had was that I wasn’t prepared for that type of film. It was promoted as the best horror of this generation and just isn’t. I loved Aster’s direction, the performances and the intelligent way he weaved the story together with a degree of subtlety and symbolism, but it was an above average experience overall and I laughed at bits that I’m pretty sure weren’t supposed to be humorous.
I’d still recommend giving it a watch because by all accounts it’s splitting opinion and some people are loving it.