The moment that I knew we were in for something special with Hereditary was the scene where miniaturist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) thinks she sees her mother’s spirit in her workroom. It’s a typical horror-movie shot of a shadowy figure ominously lurking in a darkened corner, distinct enough to elicit gasps but indistinct enough that it could just be a trick of the light. A scene later, there’s no wringing of hands from Annie, no self-denying rationalizations: Instead, she’s googling hauntings, because she saw something, dammit.
I loved that the heroine of a horror movie didn’t second-guess her instinct, that we got to skip the requisite scene where someone tells her “there is a dark presence in this house” and she doesn’t believe it. Annie knows that her life is saturated in darkness, because she survived a dysfunctional family. Even before the death of her estranged mother—an event which kicks off the film’s brutal series of events—Annie already had ghosts in her home. And that’s what makes Hereditary so successful—it’s frightening, and funny, and fuuuucked up, in ways that only humans can be to one another.
If you’ve gotten this far and have not yet seen Hereditary, kindly leave this post open in a tab and take yourself to the nearest movie theater. All of my favorite horror movies are the ones I’ve entered into knowing next to nothing about what is about to proceed. How different would my impression have been of Signs if I knew about Joaquin Phoenix yelling at the kids in the nightmarish alien sighting video? Saw already knowing that Cary Elwes would completely commit to sawing off his foot? The Babadook if I had already heard that distinctive baBAbaDOOK.DOOK.DOOK? As a kid I had The Sixth Sense spoiled for me, which made my first watch everyone else’s requisite second watch, brimming with dramatic irony and on the lookout for any and all foreshadowing. It was a fun viewing, but it wasn’t an experience. With this in mind, I must recommend that you go into Hereditary knowing as little as possible. You can watch the first trailer, which excellently sets up the atmosphere of the film without delving too deeply into the plot beyond a family, a death, and perhaps a curse or some other misfortune following in their wake. But if that’s enough to intrigue you, skip the “Charlie” trailer and go see the movie as soon as you can.
For everyone else… HOO BOY. Let’s open up this dollhouse of horrors.
SPOILERS AHEAD for Hereditary
Obviously, supernatural forces are afoot in this movie, and it’s debatable just how long Annie’s mother Ellen has been playing this long game. Did it start when she pressured Annie to have a child (Peter) she didn’t even want? Or earlier, when Annie’s brother commits suicide after accusing his mother of “trying to put people inside him”(!!)? His death seems to trigger gibberish words writing themselves across the wallpaper like Dolores Umbridge punishments; alongside a pretty but sinister sigil showing up on Ellen and Annie’s matching necklaces, on the cover of one of Ellen’s books, and even on that damn telephone pole. Writer/director Ari Aster has described the film as “a story about a long-lived possession ritual told from the perspective of the sacrificial lamb.” He goes on to say that the Grahams are a modern Greek tragedy, that all of the action is inevitable and they have absolutely no agency in the narrative.
And yet, those actions, and especially how they respond to them, seem so brutal, so horribly random yet also so awfully specific. These lambs could have been sacrificed peacefully, but instead they destroy themselves long before the ritual is completed.
We have to start, of course, with the accident, the turning point where you begin to realize that you have no idea what you’re in for with this movie. I spent the first half hour convinced that Annie’s daughter Charlie, with her mournful face and penchant for tongue-clicking, would be our odd little protagonist. Other reviews had her pegged as a demon child à la Damien from The Omen, but I never got that vibe. To be sure, she is way too creepy for her own good—I felt like Peter, frantically whispering to her, “Don’t be weird, don’t be weird” when she fiddles with handmade toys or cuts the head off the dead bird. (Though let’s not ignore the fact that both play into Charlie’s final state by the end of the film—the head, obviously, but also creating a new body!—so again, there’s a dark hand nudging things in the intended direction.)
Charlie’s family has patterns in place to accommodate her oddness, but they also clearly don’t entirely know how to handle her. There are sympathetic stares slid over her oblivious head, attempts to engage that fall flat, feelings worked out (in Annie’s case) in miniature. As mother, as awkward caretaker grappling with the loss of her own mother, Annie tries to share stories with her children, only to be met with resistance (in Charlie’s case) or blankness (in Peter’s). The only way that she can fully get the story out, then, is by recreating these memories through creepily detailed dioramas while Charlie camps out in the treehouse, Peter smokes weed, and her husband Steve watches from the doorway of her workroom with a small smile or leaves encouraging Post-It notes.
Because this is a family that doesn’t know how to talk to each other. It likely started with the sleepwalking/paint thinner incident (ohh Annie), the trauma of which made everyone retreat to their respective corners rather than address what the fuck that was. In some way, it indirectly leads to Charlie’s death; Annie mentions how it sort of short-circuited the way she and Peter talk to each other, where they snipe and sneer instead of speaking directly. So when Peter wants to go to a party being thrown by his high school friends, she challenges him in a roundabout way rather than directly confronting him; challenging him to bring Charlie to the party despite how inappropriate they both know that would be. It’s a weird game of chicken, but Charlie is the one who loses.
Even though the movie goes on to become gory, the most disturbing moment for me is Peter’s reaction to the accident that results in Charlie’s death. The way he won’t let himself look in the backseat. The resolute shock as he drives home; the numb way he climbs into bed and the camera stays on his staring face through the long, sweat-soaked night. The fact that he can’t bring himself to tell his parents and instead just leaves her body for them to find. I wanted to be angry with Peter for setting Annie up for such an awful shock, but can I say that I would react any differently? His decision comes out of a place of shock and disbelief, but it’s the most authentic reaction. I can’t even imagine what it would have looked like for him to come through the door, wake his parents up, and tell them.
Interestingly, the movie also withholds any scene discussing Peter’s role in the accident. At first I wondered if somehow his parents didn’t connect the outcome to his actions, or if they knew about the pole but not the nuts in the cake. Their refusal to address the elephant in the room made me think that Peter was forgiven, even incrementally, for what happened. Instead, each member carries the full weight of despair and guilt and anger inside, letting the poisonous combination fester until Peter begins the old dance with Annie, the sneering and prodding that sparks an explosive confrontation. Of course this is how this family grieves. It’s not until the séance that they’re actually able to speak freely.
At some points, Hereditary is funny as hell, which is startling every time. Like, how can we laugh at anything related to the horrors this family has endured? But when Annie drags Peter and Steve downstairs in the middle of the night, and she’s swinging between desperation and exasperation and saying “I’m a medium” with such conviction, it is absurd. Or even before that, when grief group buddy Joan sees Annie at the store and trills with such delight you’d think her prayers have been answered (which you find out later they very much have); when Annie is standing in Joan’s playing the seance skeptic and clearly thinking oh no, why did I follow the crazy lady to a second location. Hell, even the part where Annie makes a diorama of the accident and agonizes over the perfect detail on her daughter’s severed head—it is so horrifying yet unexpected that all of us in the audience were shocked into laughter because we didn’t know how else to react.
A lot of it is the sheer range of expression in Toni Collette’s face. (And Ann Dowd, doing equally delightful-slash-disturbing work on The Handmaid’s Tale as Aunt Lydia, here making so much of an innocuous gesture.) After Hereditary, I would follow Toni Collette into any horror story. Which is ironic, seeing as I didn’t even remember that she was the mom in The Sixth Sense. Though, rewatching the scene in which Haley Joel Osment proves his supernatural gift by passing along messages from his grandmother, you see Collette shift from exasperation to fear to reluctant belief.
Poor Annie does not get the same catharsis: Her expressions are all different levels of horror, mouth wrenched open almost unnaturally wide, or anger, her mouth slack with disgust or lips pressed together in fury. By the time you get to her agonized wailing from the trailer, it’s like Annie doesn’t even know why she’s still screaming, just that she always has been and always will.
I will admit that the movie lost me a bit in the final sixth; basically when we get our first of two exposition dumps about King Paimon and the cult, led by Ellen, that sought to give him a body in exchange for boundless riches. To be fair, I usually bounce off horror movies whose villains are linked to demons and/or the occult; I much prefer serial killers or cultists tapping into their own inner darknesses. I don’t know Paimon from Lucifer, but I do want to know more about how Ellen discovered this bargain in the first place; if it meant earthly riches that were consolation for being estranged from her family, or if it were a matter of fortune in the afterlife. Despite Annie glimpsing her mother’s spirit, Ellen only really communicates to her through notes like the one in the book, that said something to the effect of Know that I sacrificed what I did for the reward. Having seen the movie only once (and a lot happens after that note), I can’t remember if she ever claims that this bargain is for the good of everyone. That’s the story I wanted to know more of: why Ellen entrusted Joan in her confidence as a surrogate daughter over Annie; if Ellen offered up her blood children and grandchildren as sacrificial lambs or thought that she was actually ensuring the greatest of all family legacies.
But to reveal all that would have taken away from the horror of the final sequences: poor stalwart Steve going up in flames; a possessed Annie sawing off her own head; Peter jumping out the window to his death, only for his body to be reanimated by Charlie’s spirit. Or is that Paimon’s spirit, and Charlie was never really Charlie? Hereditary leaves its audience with so many more questions than at the beginning, but that’s the point: This story, about the family whose tragic flaw is an inability to communicate, gets people talking.