This year’s Hereditary has been hailed as the scariest movie in recent years, but I don’t feel that it does this film justice. It is terrifying on a psychological level, but the traditional jump scares and scare tactics are minimal. Instead, we are left with a film that examines grief, PTSD, the loss of a loved one, dealing with the consequences, and recognising the responsibilities and role of a parent in times of crisis. I think it’s also about living with the inability to understand or read your own parent and living with the confusion and frustration. It is “scary” in the sense that from the parents’ perspective, getting the call that your child has died or coming to terms with that is scarier than any horror movie imaginable, and that’s what makes Hereditary really so visceral. On top of that, it’s a very subversive film, killing off seemingly major characters and confounding our expectations of plot progression and storyline. For me, I felt that they could have done without the whole cult subplot – it was fun, reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby in some ways, but if the focus of the film had just been mental illness and dealing with what comes after the catalyst, I think the film would have worked just as well.
After the death of her eccentric mother, Annie (Toni Collette) tries to come to terms with her grief and joins local support groups. She lives with her husband Steve and teenage son Peter and young daughter Charlie (she creeped me the fuck out). Charlie shows signs of psychopathic behaviour from the onset, cutting off a pigeon’s head with scissors among things (thankfully they used a mould for the actual scene) and just having an empty, soulless look about her. After she has an anaphylactic shock at a party with Peter after eating cake with nuts in it, Peter drives her to the hospital and she accidentally ends up decapitated. With both family deaths on her mind, Annie’s sanity starts to deteriorate. She subconsciously blames her son for her death, has disturbing sleepwalking episodes, and rants maniacally to her husband about an apparent demonic cult that her mother was involved in and malevolently involved the family in (hence the movie’s name). I didn’t expect the filmmakers to kill off Charlie so early in the film and I certainly didn’t expect the cult stuff to be true, but it’s really compelling storytelling and interlinks with Annie’s own crumbling sanity. Collette is the main focus of most of the movie, but she gives a fantastic performance as a woman spiralling out of control; hysterical, raving, and slowly coming apart. I really connected with her husband, who suffers in his own way but appears more quiet about it and more sympathetic, although perhaps he’s not developed enough to know how his own PTSD manifests. And the actress who plays Charlie does a fine job – the creepy child reminded me of the seemingly demonic child Miles in The Turn of the Screw.
It’s a great debut from Ari Aster and I can definitely see the comparisons with The Witch and Rosemary’s Baby. As mentioned, I would have preferred to see more the exploration of the grief narrative rather than the additional substance of the cult plotline, but it’s still pretty great and one of the best horror movies I’ve seen recently. Definitely worth a watch!