“It’s all for you Charlie! It’s all for you.”
Alright, that isn’t actually a line from Ari Aster’s directorial debut, Hereditary, but it is fitting. This slow-burn horror flick, stars Toni Collette as Annie Graham, a miniatures artist (that would make Francis Glessner proud) who attempts to shield her family from her own psychosis in the wake of her mother’s death. This tradition of repression and secrets ultimately leads one to question if we are a victim of fate; whether it be by a divine plan or genetic predisposition. What does the road hold for us and what must we sacrifice along the way to achieve actualization?
Pretty heavy stuff, right? Well get ready for a film that fulfills the art house headiness while introducing bizarre horrific moments. Prefer the more psychological aspects than disturbing, say decaying body parts? Save yourself a ticket, lest you be like the few people who left the theater mid-screening. Un-phased? Let’s dive in.
*Warning Spoilers Ahead*
Annie’s family consists of her husband Steve (Gabriele Byrne), son Peter (Alex Woff), and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Their unity falls apart in the face of tragedy upon the accidental decapitation of 13 year old Charlie. With Annie and Peter blaming each other, Steve is stuck in between his wife and his son. His half-hearted support of Annie’s mental turmoil causes her to reach out to a grief support group. Here, she meets Joan (Ann Dowd) who struggles with her own grief in the wake of the death of her son and grandson.
At first Annie is hesitant of Joan’s attempt at friendship (we all are of Aunt Lydia), but when the older woman is able to communicate with her grandson through a spiritualism ritual, Annie is determined to do so for her own kin. This is where the story ramps up with weird as the living nightmare takes hold of the entire family. Both Annie and Peter are tormented with visions both awake and during sleep. Annie has a history herself with mental illness having attempted to ignite her and her son in a sleepwalking state. This previous incident, combined with the fact that her bother committed suicide after allegedly hearing voices, makes Steve skeptical of Annie’s rantings. His lack of empathy and understanding is not an uncommon response to mental illness.
Towards the end we learn of the masters behind the scenes controlling the Graham household is a satanic cult that worships the Paimon-a demon in service to Lucifer, who grants power and fortune to those who worship him. We’ve seen his sigil before, as the necklace Annie and her mother both have (a gift from the later to the former). It is one of many breadcrumbs of foreshadowing sprinkled throughout the film. In its own self-reflexive way, the film lays out the DNA (if you will) of the steps the characters are destined to take. Are our futures determined by our heredity? Much like the lesson Peter’s teachers profess at the front of the classroom while he ignores them over plans to smoke up, the perception of free will makes an unfortunate fate, all the more tragic.
Having already lost so much (her father, brother, mother, and daughter), Annie attempts to reconcile and fight to save her son. In an ironic twist of fate this comes at the cost of her husband. When she believes she can take control by sacrificing herself, she is wrong and her actions have little consequence towards her goal. The Satanists ruled by Annie’s mother, the Queen, had been planning this for years-since Charlie was born. Exercising their magick, the Grahams were just game pieces they sacrificed for their penultimate ceremony.
In a film where the reminders of inheriting from our parents is the title, Annie’s own mother controls the world around her similarly to Annie’s manipulation of her miniature scenes. She creates scaled down tableaus recreating both highly accurate as well as artistically interpreted versions of events. Her work is displayed prominently in the Graham house as a totem pole-esque arrangement of stacked houses is the centerpiece of the first floor. When home and family are intertwined and meant to be a place where we are safe and secure, making both the setting for this horror film speak to an anxiety at a very personal level.
I don’t want to ruin the ending, for anyone who plans on watching this film for themselves. The long shots and slow pacing throughout suddenly come to a head in the final scenes in a very The Omen meets Rosemary’s Baby way. While all of the events line up, many of us were left scratching our heads as the credits rolled. Similar to my experience watching Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, no one felt the desire to clap after the conclusion as we were all still trying to figure out what it all meant.
Luckily, for Aster’s sake, Hereditary is proving to be more successful than Aronofsky’s most recent work having surpassed opening weekend gross amount. For a film following in the wake of recent successes of “highbrow horror” seen by Get Out and A Quiet Place one can’t help but applaud these first-time directors risk taking. While horror is traditionally a genre that lives on the fringes, reaching a broader audience is indicative of deeply troubled times as film is reflexive of social anxieties. True or not, one can only hope that production companies are taking note and are opening opportunities for more risks in original content over rebooting the same old franchises.
If you saw Hereditary and loved it, hated it, or can’t decide, leave a comment and let’s discuss!
Feature Credit: A24