SPOILERS: For the sake of this story about how Hereditary has effected me, I will be going in deep with every detail I can think of to explain what I am trying to say. If you have not seen this film, you must.
A discussion that surrounds horror tends to come from the scariest movie that someone has seen. I would say I don’t usually get scared, but I do get lingering feelings from somethings I have seen on the big screen that stay with me for a few hours to a couple of days, but never months. Ari Aster’s debut supernatural flick Hereditary goes above anything I have seen as it is more than just terrifying, it is traumatizing in the best way possible.
I missed the boat when it came to theaters. The trailers did not sell me and the hype around it got me intrigued, but I could not find the time to hit the theater. My friend sent me the Blu-ray, pushing me to finally to watch it on a night where I had nothing to do, and I did not expect to have a life changing experience.
The load down on the story comes from the mother and wife of a family, Annie (Toni Collette), who lost her mother, the grandmother of her children. She had a rocky, distant, and unusual relationship with her mom, so she is in an awkward state of grief. Things start to get unusual, especially after the sudden death of her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). A cult is in the background to summon ancient demon and deliver a male host, the son Peter (Alex Wolff), and they win by killing everyone and controlling Peter’s body.
Two components make up the narrative, an emotional drama and a mysterious possession horror narrative. So, let’s start with the spooky happenings that occur to this family.
A slow burn for the genre is not much of a thing anymore. Aster brings back pacing elements that are often found in older horror films. The first hour is primarily a story of a family coping with the loss of two members with a terrifying secret lurking beneath the surface until the shift occurs turning this into something entirely sinister.
Dropping bread crumbs of clues about cult and their agenda along with tidbits of horror create tension without a lot occurring. Chairs are not being misplaced or random objects flying across the room, it is subtle, making me miss or not think about certain details that will come back to haunt me later. After the first few minutes, Annie sees her mother in the shadows of a room after the funeral, then that is the last of any ghostly activity for a while. This signal reminded me this is in the realm of the supernatural, but with an emptiness of Exorcist styled possession and a focus on family fights, I got a false sense of security by getting involved with their relationships, and letting the religious zealots continue their mission.
The crawl to the climax gives an uneasiness to this ride. I felt disturbed without the constant jump scares or danger that comes from most in the genre. Psychological horror is far more effective, yet this is more like a predator toying with its prey, it is much more than how most tricks to the viewer’s mind tends to play out.. Annie seeing things like ants all over Peter’s face then the discomfort of their relationship grows as Peter wakes up to his mother standing in his room silent adds to the emotions I am already feeling and makes me question if the mother’s delusions come from a spiritual force or her recent trauma.
The climax alone launches the speed. Annie on the wall, close to the ceiling of Peter’s room and slowly revealing herself from the darkness is easily one of the most horrifying things I have seen from any movie in my life. The payoff of having everything going to hell with the father, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), lighting into flames, Annie becoming possessed, and the cult of religious fanatics to win is a chilling and depressing way to conclude as I grew to want the best for these desperate people.
One of the best ways to impact an audience comes from having something relatable or attach to. The themes tackled by Aster outweighs the devilish beings and crazed Pagan clans that wipe out an entire family. The focus on mental illness, the consequences of isolation, apathy, and willing ignorance in a moment when people need the answer is sticking together show really how Hereditary is deeper than the average horror flick.
That is what made this film stick to me for months after I had seen it. Pain drives this narrative, making it more depressing than most dramas. Except for the adrenaline producing final act, that grief and division between the members of this family is what haunts me.
Peter and Annie have had a difficult relationship due to past struggles that never got resolved. Annie had gone into an episode of sleep walking which resulted in her nearly killing her only son. Now he is to blame for the death of Charlie after he takes her to a party, she eats a cake with nuts in it to trigger her allergy, then smashes her head when trying to get air on the drive to the hospital. The cult’s plan to drive the parents and children all apart is working.
The chilling silence and explosive arguments between mother and son along with husband and wife heighten the drama. It is not one note on repeat, instead the multiple layers with these somber moments of grief and the loud fights give a more realistic sense of how a broken family functions, especially under traumatic circumstances like losing a child. I did not go into a movie about possession, cults, and demons and end up getting smacked by a gripping story about these people who I felt for during their entire journey.
My friends and I would speak about it like we witnessed something horrifying in the real world, except this is just a movie directed by a passionate filmmaker. It was on a level that none of us had seen before. Even mentioning it gets guttural reactions from any of us.
The emotional connections with the creepy elements sneaking in makes for the most impactful scary movie I have digested. It is why I believe Ari Aster is the best in the genre, but it also why his creations do not leave me when the credits roll. I thought about this film every day for five to six months after watching, and here I am seven to eight months later writing this article that you are reading, so no, Hereditary never left my mind.
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Header image via A24