The following contains major spoilers for Hereditary from the outset.
When the dust settles – and the yelps subside – in the wake of Hereditary, we wonder if one thing will become more apparent with time: just how blackly comic this familial horror is. Writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature may be filled with demonic dread, but its drama is also laced with desert-dry humor.
Aster has cited Mike Leigh as an inspiration for his movie, and it certainly shows in Hereditary’s moments of kitchen sink drama: this is the latest in a long line of horror movies that depicts your typical family dinner as a blood-curdling battle ground (see also: Adam Wingard’s You’re Next and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Then again, the family at the center of Hereditary have a good reason to argue: despite the outward appearance of a well-to-do American family – big house, two cars in the driveway – their history is filled with all kinds of Lovecraftian secrets that only gradually crawl into view.
Opening with a funeral and only growing more bleak from there, Hereditary introduces Annie Graham (Toni Collette) an artist, wife and mother who’s just lost her secretive and desperately ill mother, Ellen. Guilty at her vague sense of relief at her mother’s passing, Annie returns to her day job: turning her personal experiences into tiny, delicate dioramas – all the better to render the chaotic motionless, to make half-forgotten memories concrete. Little does Annie know that an unseen, devilish force is doing something similar: quietly manipulating Annie and her family into predefined positions like pieces on a chessboard.
Stripped down to its genre essentials, Hereditary weaves a familiar horror tale: there’s a conspiracy involving devil worshippers, a roomy house for keeping corpses and demons in, an ill-advised seance and, crowning the lot, a youngster becoming the vessel for an ancient evil. What makes Hereditary special, though, is the way Aster uses his satanic conspiracy as a stand-in for all the horrors that a family can pass on down the generations: genetic disorders, neuroses, assorted traumas, phobias and resentments.
Aster’s depiction of a family tearing itself apart might have been unwatchably downbeat had it been rendered as a straight drama; ironically, it’s the scares and supernatural overtones that serve as a welcome release valve from the intergenerational anger and loathing. In the screening your humble writer attended, the scary sequences in Hereditary provoked all the jumps and squeals of fear you’d expect; the loudest gasps, however, came from the moments where Annie vents her anger at her teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff).
It also helps that Aster brings a knowingly hysterical touch to his horror. This is aptly summed up in the scene where Annie visits a grief therapy session and proceeds to let her life’s story pour out of her like an unholy river. In normal circumstances, we might expect a counsellor leading a session like this to say something like, “There are no taboos here; there’s nothing you can say that can surprise us.” In this instance, Annie’s story of woe is so baroque and so horrifying that the people surrounding her can’t even begin to hide their shock.
This might be the key to Hereditary’s effectiveness as a horror, drama and dark satire of the modern family. It takes an emotional blitzkrieg approach that is gag-inducing, saddening and bewilderingly funny all at once. Aster’s film is Annie’s public over-share. It’s like a wretched sinner confessing to a crime so heinous that even the priest can’t stop himself from rushing out of the church and screaming for the police.
Hitchcock once commented that he thought of Psycho as a particularly nasty “big joke”; watching Hereditary, we couldn’t help but think of its filmmaker allowing himself a sly grin at the grim fates he metes out on his characters.
Hereditary also gets at the absurdity of a family sticking to its rituals while its relationships quietly burn in the background. There are demons snapping at the Grahams’ heels, yet they still insist on taking their shoes off in the hallway and washing their hands before dinner. Toni Collette’s raw performance is entirely of a piece with Aster’s style of filmmaking, and her volatility is fascinating to watch; there may be rotting things in the family attic, but there are few things more scary than being subjected to one of Annie’s rants at the dinner table.
As the father and son respectively, Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff shouldn’t be overlooked, either; the film needs Byrne’s resigned performance as a counterweight to Collette’s unfettered fury, and his character’s reaction to the story’s supernatural episodes (“For fuck’s sake”) are wonderfully beige. We’re used to seeing skepticism or outright terror in horror movies; aside from Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters, expressions of apathy in the face of the unknown are comparatively rare.
Wolff’s stoner teen Peter, meanwhile, might just be the least lucky member of the whole bunch. Resented by his mother and left guilt-ridden following the freakish death of his younger sister, Charlie (a superbly eerie Milly Shapiro), Peter’s decline is both gradual and absolute. By the end, the true Peter’s gone, replaced by an obscure denizen of hell called King Paimon; take away the supernatural trappings, and it’s easy to imagine this being the part of the story where Peter’s psyche finally cracks under the strain of his trauma. (Peter‘s earlier gasp – “Mommy” – is a subtly devastating indicator of how broken he’s become.)
Peter’s fate – so absurd and borderline surreal – gets to the streak of nihilism lurking under Hereditary’s surface. In Aster’s precious, Wes Anderson-like version of reality, there is no true free-will; his characters are tiny actors on a stage, going through predefined motions governed by forces beyond their control. Just as we’re defined in no small part by the genes and the hang-ups passed onto us by our parents, so Annie, Charlie and Peter are fated to act out the horrible drama written and prepared for them by their elders, whether inside the family or without.
It’s a despairing, starkly existential vision, and Hereditary arguably needs its hint of black comedy to make it palatable. Running at a long two hours 10 minutes, it’s a demanding film compared to other, more mainstream genre pieces. Nevertheless, it’s strangely refreshing to watch a horror movie toy so boldly with its audiences emotions, before plunging quite deliberately into the abyss.
As Aster explained to Den of Geek UK‘s Ben Mortimer, not all families can survive the terrible blows of trauma, sickness and recrimination. Hereditary is a brave examination of what happens when the rituals and threads that tie a family together come violently unstuck; to paraphrase a character in Apocalypse Now: “There’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.”
Hereditary is out in theaters now.