Hereditary – USA, 2018

‘Every family tree hides a secret.’

Hereditary is a 2018 American supernatural horror feature film written and directed by Ari Aster (Midsommar). The movie stars Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd and Milly Shapiro.

Plot:

When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. The more they discover, the more they find themselves trying to outrun the sinister fate they seem to have inherited…

A24 (The Killing of a Sacred Deer; The Monster; The Witch) released Hereditary theatrically in the United States on June 8, 2018. Some audience feedback was at odds with the film’s generally glowing reviews, resulting in a D+ from CinemaScore.

However, polls can often be misleading and the film took an estimated $7 million in its second week of release for a domestic total of $27 million, making it A24’s biggest hit so far. Hereditary went on to take $79,275,328 worldwide.

On April 28, 2018, various news media outlets reported that a trailer for Hereditary had accidentally been shown at Event Cinemas in Perth, Australia, prior to a screening of PG-rated family film Peter Rabbit.

A local resident named Jane reportedly told the Australian news site WA Today: “Parents were yelling at the projectionist to stop, covering their kids’ eyes and ears. A few went out to get a staff member but she was overwhelmed and didn’t really know what to do. Some parents fled the cinema with their kids in tow.”

Hereditary was classified as MA15+ in Australia. Meanwhile, the MPAA has rated the movie R forhorror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity.

Review [spoiler alert]:

Ari Aster’s feature directorial debut follows a family with a history of dark secrets. Annie, played by Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) is a miniaturist artist coming to terms with the death of her estranged mother, Ellen. Annie’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) was close to her grandma and struggles with the loss. She’s soon visited by shimmery lights and cuts the head off a dead pigeon at school.

Annie thinks she sees her mother’s apparition and goes to a support group for the bereaved, where she reveals that her family has a history of mental illness. Due to her difficult relationship with Ellen, Annie refused to let the woman near her firstborn, Peter (Alex Wolff) and regrets allowing her contact with Charlie. The girl’s oddness is manifested through the creation of disturbing pictures and figurines, along with random clucking noises. The viewer has to wonder if the family’s ‘curse’ is a lot more sinister than faulty genetics.

When Peter is invited to a party, Annie makes him take Charlie to help her socialise. After eating a cake containing nuts, Charlie goes into anaphylactic shock and Peter has to rush her to hospital. Unable to breathe, Charlie sticks her head out of the window, only to be decapitated by a telephone pole. Although we don’t get to witness the aftermath, Peter’s reaction is what powers the suspense as he drives home in zombified shock. It isn’t until the next morning that we hear Annie’s screams, followed by a gruesome shot of Charlie’s head back at the roadside.

Annie becomes more and more unhinged, and Peter feels Charlie’s presence around the house and at school, with visions and that customary clucking sound. While tensions between mother and son mount, husband Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne (Stigmata) maintains a resigned composure throughout. These scripting issues crop up periodically through the film with waffling – and occasionally unrealistic – dialogue: Peter shouting “Mummy!” and crying like an adult baby, to name but a few.

Annie befriends a member of her support group, Joan (Ann Dowd) who teaches her how to perform a séance. Annie contacts Charlie with sceptical Steve and Peter, but something goes wrong and Annie is seemingly possessed by her. When Charlie’s old sketchbook fills with worrying images of Peter, Annie believes her spirit has become malevolent and tries to burn the book, but her arms sets on fire.

Annie turns to Joan for help, but she’s disappeared and her apartment is full of objects that resemble a satanic ritual. She goes through her mother’s belongings and finds a photo album linking Ellen to Joan, along with a book detailing a demon called Paimon, who seeks a vulnerable male host. In the attic, Annie discovers her mum’s headless body.

At school, Peter is taken over by an evil force that twists his arm and forces him to ram his head into a table – a stunt performed by the actor himself, which resulted in real blood gushing down to his knees. Steve receives an email from the cemetery informing him that Ellen’s grave has been desecrated, to which he blames Annie and insists that she gets professional help. Annie believes that sacrificing herself is the only way to save Peter and throws the sketchbook into the fire, but this time it’s Steve that bursts into flames.

Peter finds his dad’s cremated body, with a creepy shot of possessed Annie clinging to the ceiling in the background. Whether it was supposed to be Charlie’s spirit or Paimon, one can only guess; but she chases Peter into the attic and hangs upside down from the trap door while bashing her head into the wood. After which, she miraculously appears levitating inside the room and proceeds to saw her own head off with cheese wire – probably the most disturbing scene in the film.

Peter sees a group of naked cult members lurking in the corner of the attic and dives out of the window, allowing the shimmery light to enter his lifeless body. He wakes up and follows Annie’s floating, headless corpse into the tree house, which is as laugh-out-loud as it sounds. Charlie’s disembodied head is crowned and perched on top of a mannequin, while the decapitated bodies of Annie and Ellen are bowing to Peter. Joan is there with other coven members to greet him, except Peter’s body is now inhabited by Charlie and Paimon. The demon has been liberated from his female host and can finally rule over them.

Hereditary is a something of a slow burn with an overly complex plot and some dull characterisation at the beginning. Charlie is the most engrossing, and her shocking death leads to similar moments of brutality; each growing in severity as the film reaches its peak. The set’s dollhouse-like appearance was a nice touch, with camera long shots of dark, boxy rooms.

The special effects also deviate from the usual cartoonish nature of so-called ‘shit-your-pants’ movies, which isn’t surprising coming from the producers of The Witch (2015) and Split (2016). However, Hereditary does have a little more substance than its predecessors, even if parts of it don’t make complete sense.

Rae Louise, MOVIES & MANIA

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