DIRECTED BY: Ari Aster
FEATURING: , Milly Shapiro,
PLOT: Disturbing events unfold after the death of a family matriarch, culminating in a bizarrely violent pagan ritual infused with supernatural occurrences.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hereditary equals or surpasses already Certified Weird films The Wicker Man, Repulsion, and Don’t Look Now with creepy cult imagery, tightly wound drama, and an effective and disturbing finale. The heavily-researched occult details makes the material surrounding guilt and loss linger. The exceptional effectiveness of Hereditary‘s unique brand of personal tragedy transformed into cult devilry means it should be considered for the list.
COMMENTS: Like a coffin descending into a fresh grave, Hereditary sinks into a subconscious nightmare that feels extremely real. The supernatural mystery at the core of the story (derived from a host of influences) is amplified by raw emotions surrounding bereavement and guilt. Hereditary doesn’t hold back when the catharsis comes. While Colin Stetson’s score highlights the creepy occult details to an oppressive effect, the characters mechanize into functional roles of which they are unaware. Represented in miniature models built by lead character Annie (Toni Collette), they ultimately fall prey to a bizarre set of spiritual encounters which, given the slow drip of small clues along the way, makes for an affecting, unforgettable experience.
The anxious and paranoid plot structure is highlighted by a web of sensory mechanics, like clicks and shimmers. It’s not surprising that theatergoers already engage in “clucking” during viewings, embracing the sensory details of the plot in real time. Much like‘s Repulsion, which is also laden with sensory triggers and sharp invasions, Hereditary is often dour and unpleasant; but this allows more fun to be had with its exciting plot development focusing on the invocation of an ancient pagan lord. Hereditary doesn’t merely bludgeon the audience with pop-psychology myths; it amplifies its plot revelations with painstakingly researched detail and pitch-perfect acting. The haunting images, abrupt sounds, and Toni Collette’s riveting acting combine with the sensory flourishes to create a seamless whole with an unusually oppressive mood.
The audience shares Annie’s emotions. Her retreat and avoidance of pain explodes into violent death and disorientation, kick-started in an early scenes when Annie asks her husband, “Should I be sadder?” after her mother’s funeral. Her focus on crafting miniature replicas grounds and distracts her, but perhaps only furthers her destructive tendencies.
The mechanics of the wider plot make the atmosphere even more compelling. Words in a bizarre language—“Satony,” “Zazam,” “Liftoach Pandemonium”—scribbled onto a bedroom wall neatly divide the narrative. Meant as invocations, the words (Aster did some befittingly unpleasant research into the occult to retrieve them) are structural triggers that fit neatly into Annie’s crafting of miniatures, and which trigger progressive terror by letting the audience know that stuff’s about to get real.
Take, for example, the personalities of the characters, which reflect their role in the madness. There’s Peter, the laconic stoner subjected to several hauntings; Charlie the instrumental introvert, doomed from the start; and Steven, the helpless voice of reason. He’s tired from having to stabilize his wife, Annie, the vulnerable choreographer of a larger family drama. They are a well-oiled machine for the benefit of manipulative, evil forces.
The micro level of detail is horrifying and arguably weirder than fellow cult-horror list-maker The Wicker Man, with its Christians vs. pagans conflict. Hereditary flexes hopeless nihilism by letting the audience know early on that there is no Christian side here. Both films tap into something buried within the human psyche which is inexplicably familiar, unavoidable, and expressed through pagan ritual.
Hereditary has a more precise funnel for its barbarism, with haunting, lingering images that are hyper-charged with family drama. Aster apparently screened the 1990’s family drama The Ice Storm for the cast, and there’s some family-drama elements in common with Collette’s earlier work in The Sixth Sense. The emphasis on specific emotional drama gives the film a living pulse, improving its ability to horrify. The droney soundscapes and richly drawn villain give it a chance to surpass its influences as one of the weirdest possession/witchcraft movies of all time.
In addition to tightly wound drama, Hereditary weaves objects and artifacts into the plot. Annie is hyper-focused on her models, recreations of the depressions in her life. They are replicas, but also mechanical devices. They mirror events but also lure Annie into the perils of self-reflection, which makes her more vulnerable to manipulation. Her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is also largely occupied with crafting small, lurid replicas, creative but ugly works that seriously improve Hereditary as a weird movie candidate. As Charlie mutilates dead birds, tinkers with bizarre objects, and prepares strange artifacts from earthen material, Annie retreats further into her own creations and loses touch with those around her. The drive to work is healthy, but ultimately saves nobody from the pain of loss.
If there is a place to be had for Don’t Look Now on the List, Hereditary may not be far behind. Aster’s film has much in common with‘s Certified Weird thriller, where empathy towards the grieving characters heightens the effectiveness of the supernatural elements. One firm example is the similarity between Ann Dowd’s character Joanie and the blind psychic in Don’t Look Now, who both provide a human link to mysterious spirit realms while creating a sense of unease. Aster states that Don’t Look Now was an influence, but Hereditary one-ups it in entertainment value by providing eerie and detailed puzzles, including thoroughly researched occult objects and lean details about a terrible, unseen evil. The focus on developing rituals heightens the tension and averts boredom, which is something that Roeg’s film sometime struggled with.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…mostly I just felt really weirded out, which is what the movie wants. If you’re going into Hereditary looking for a ‘scary movie,’ you’re doing it wrong. Better descriptors might be ‘uncanny,’ or ‘unnerving,’ or ‘vexing,’ or ‘devilish’… It is one wild, wild movie.”–Alissa Wilkinson, Vox (contemporaneous)