Hello, everyone! I finally got to see Hereditary, a movie I’ve been eagerly awaiting since critics dubbed it the scariest movie of the year. Listen to me, children. Never go into a horror movie with expectations. Those will be your downfall. I went into the screening of Hereditary expecting to have my jaded bones jump out of their skin and to experience two hours of impeccable craftsmanship. While not exactly satisfied, my expectations were subverted, even perverted, into a movie that seemed to constantly contradict itself. It was wholly original, but also derivative, masterfully frightening in parts, yet tame in others. It was an intense family drama with an amateur grasp on characterization and how real people interact. As director Ari Aster’s debut film, Hereditary exhibited subtlety, sophistication, and boldness, but also revealed a lack of restraint. Hereditary showcases a lot of skill on Aster’s part, but it’s also kind of a mess. In our new era of horror where slow-burn, character-driven pieces like The Babadook and The Witch reign supreme, a film like Hereditary checks all the boxes, but can’t think outside of them.
My take: A haunting glimpse into a dollhouse is our invitation into the lives of Annie, her husband, and her two children Peter and Charlie. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski slips us into their lives by way of artifice, first through this fake dollhouse version of Peter’s room, and then into its reality. From this first scene, we learn that nothing is what it seems. Annie’s dollhouses, meticulous reconstructions of the mundane and macabre in her life, toe the line between recreation and resurrection. Immediately, we learn that grief is intimately intertwined with this family’s life, and in their graves, the dead lie unsettled.
In order to discuss this film fully, I’ll need to talk about spoilers. So, you’ve been warned.
The movie begins with Annie and her family dealing with the death of Ellen, Annie’s mother. A private and manipulative person, Ellen’s death leaves Annie feeling relieved, but Charlie, an odd thirteen-year-old with a predilection for decapitating dead birds, feeling bereft. Although Annie is somewhat haunted by the hole her mother left, she begins to heal, only to have her life upended when Charlie is accidentally killed after going with Peter to a high school party. Charlie’s gruesome death awakens ancient resentments in Annie that begin to manifest against Peter and her husband. At the center of all the chaos lies Ellen’s secret life, and Annie quickly realizes that her mother’s past is instrumental in creating their present.
Hereditary‘s greatest strength is its fearlessness in the face of the grotesque. The film glorifies in decay and decapitation. In the film’s first jaw-dropping scene, ants swarm around a rotting head. In another, flies cloud over a gruesomely charred body. Unlike the sticky shiny gore of other horror movies, the gore in Hereditary is eerily realistic, and more frightening because of it. Another fantastic technique is the film’s use of subtlety and darkness. There are two scenes which exemplify this trick so well that it would be cruel of me to spoil them. So I’ll just say that if you tend to see scary things in the dark, this movie might not be the best one for you.
Magnifying the more terrifying moments in the film is a chilling soundtrack by composer Colin Stetson, who plays into the dissonant minimalist horror soundtracks that have been all the rage for the past few years. The pieces might make your skin crawl, in the best way way possible.
The last twenty or so minutes of Hereditary are genuinely frightening, which makes it superior to 99 percent of horror movies. But even so, the scariness doesn’t excuse the film’s storytelling flaws. Foremost is the film’s lack of cohesion. I’m all for a batshit movie (Black Philip, anyone?), but I like my batshittiness to include some sense of coherency. If there is a trail of breadcrumbs, they must lead to a fulfilling conclusion. And if there are significant character quirks and motifs, I prefer if they serve a purpose in the story rather than just adding general vague thematic elements.
Let me clarify a bit. When I speak about breadcrumbs, I mean little hints that are scattered throughout the movie that an attentive viewer might piece together to guess the movie’s conclusion. Hereditary has more breadcrumbs than the woods in Hansel and Gretel, but these breadcrumbs don’t lead us to an “aha” moment. The plot seems like a lot of puzzle pieces that didn’t fit but were forced together. We have Charlie’s semi-supernatural powers and weird bird beheading tactics, a treehouse which has no significance until its convenient role in the conclusion, Annie’s sleepwalking, and a weird blueish light that is never explained. All of these should play some role in forming the movie’s conclusion, but their “roles” are more tacked onto the conclusion than the elements that created it.
The conclusion itself, while having a lot of “breadcrumbs” that point to it in a very annoying, obvious way, nevertheless seems out of place. The ending of Hereditary is so trite that it negatively impacts the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the first thing that came to mind after watching the ending was “Paranormal Activity 2 did this better.” I’m sure Ari Aster’s auteur brain would melt at such a comment.
One of the main problems with the ending is that it hinges on the decisions of a character who is dead before the film starts and is so sketchily characterized that the ending has no weight. By the end, we’re supposed to get the sense that Annie’s mother Ellen has haunted her and influenced and manipulated her life so drastically that she altered the course of the film. But the reveal of her secret motivations are so contrived and frankly laughable that they lack merit. Perhaps if Aster had given Ellen even one scene with Annie before she died, her role as master manipulator would be more credible, but as it is in the movie she’s merely represented by a few hilarious pictures and Annie’s anecdotes. It’s not enough substance on which to base your evil villain.
All of the characters lack substantial characterization. Annie is perhaps the most fully realized, but that’s more due to Toni Collette’s harrowing acting skills than her onscreen representation. Charlie is a complete enigma, Peter is mostly just emotive eyebrows, and Annie’s husband (who is so bland that I can’t even remember his name) is just Gabriel Byrne pretending to be a character. Annie and her husband have such a dearth of chemistry that their marriage seems like a farce, and the way Annie talks to her children reminded me of the way a woman might talk to the kids of one of her acquaintances. Despite being a family, none of the characters seem to “know” each other in any deep way. Maybe that was Aster’s way of showing how disconnected the family had become after Charlie’s death, but I’ve known families who’ve lost children, and their interpersonal connections didn’t completely disappear because of it.
I attribute this, for lack of a better word, awkwardness, to Aster’s dialogue. It’s rough, to say the least, and completely artificial. There’s an intense scene where Annie and Peter fight which could have been improved so much with more realistic dialogue. Little false patches stand out, like Gabriel Byrne’s completely fake email, or Peter’s conversation with a girl at a party, that unintentionally pierce the 4th wall enough for the audience to snap out of their reverie and think “oh right, this is a movie.”
But even without the dialogue, many times the character’s behavior just doesn’t make sense. Why would Annie encourage Charlie to go to a party without her epipen when she knows that she has a fatal nut allergy? Why would Peter not try to find an epipen at the party or call an ambulance rather than driving himself to the hospital? And the most glaringly bizarre behavior, why would Peter leave Annie’s decapitated body in the car for his mother to find, rather than tell her in person? I’ve never been in that situation, but I’m sure that no matter how traumatizing, most people would tell their parents that their sister’s dead body was in the back seat of the car. It’s almost psychopathic that Peter left her body like that in the car, or that he drove off in the first place without calling the police. I’m not saying that horror movies have to be realistic, because most of them aren’t, but humans should act like humans. And a boy like Peter, who Aster depicts as sort of spacey and sensitive, does not seem like the type of person to leave his sister’s corpse in the car and go to sleep.
Hereditary is a daring and scary movie, but it suffers from major flaws. Like the dollhouses it’s so fixated on, it’s intricate and meticulously made, but artificial. Very little adds up as it should. The experience of watching the film is bizarre and nerve-wracking and as an experimental film, it stretches the limits of what is acceptable in horror without being distasteful. As a first effort, I applaud it. But as a mature film, judged on its own merits, I think it needs work. I look forward to Aster’s next film, and know that I’ll leave my expectations at the door.