Dir. Ari Aster. Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne
Never trust Ann Dowd! I don’t watch that much television, and even I know never to trust Ann Dowd!
Anyway, the movie I’ve seen Hereditary compared to most frequently is Rosemary’s Baby, which I’m not sure I understand. Granted, these are two horror movies without any real jump scares or serious gross-out moments to speak of, and both deal with demonology. But what makes Rosemary’s Baby frightening is the fact that everyone around Rosemary is sewing her into a sack and preparing to throw her into the ocean. Rosemary cannot quite see what we can see: her husband is willing to sell her out for his own benefit. The rapist Satan is freaky enough on his own terms, but Guy is the truly scary character in that picture. Hereditary is missing that sense that someone else is out to get Annie (Collette) or Paul (Wolff). A spirit, a ghost, a dead family member or two might haunt the Grahams. But this is not the same as a conspiracy acted on by everyone one knows; this is the unseen wrath of supernatural forces which have their plans for the invocation of Paimon who is, as far as I can tell, the Google search of demons. More importantly, there’s no reveal like that at the end of Rosemary’s Baby: Hereditary does not have a line like “He has his father’s eyes.” The end of Hereditary features a somewhat dazed Paul, presumably invested with Charlie’s (Milly Shapiro) spirit and hosting Paimon as well, while Joan (Dowd) asks the demon for his help in exchange for their worship. It’s anticlimactic; the film’s best scenes, featuring predictably spellbinding levitation, have only just preceded this.
Worse still, the movie leans away from a possibility that it had previously opened itself to. This could be happening entirely in the heads of Annie and Paul, the living schizophrenics in a family that may well have numbered Grandma Ellen as a late one. (By that reading, Hereditary is much more like Through a Glass Darkly than Rosemary’s Baby.) A scene at a group grief counseling session reveals that Annie’s family has mental illness going back a long way. The fact that the Grahams are burying Grandma after she died of natural causes makes her like a lottery winner given what happened to her husband and son. Most importantly, Steve (Byrne) is fairly sure that all of this is Annie’s mental health cratering in the wake of Charlie’s death by freak accident. When Annie sends him to the attic to find her mother’s decapitated, rotting body, Steve’s first thought is not “Clearly, the work of a demon-worshiping cult” but “My wife dug up her mother, chopped off her head, and put the body in the attic.” Hereditary ends with Joan’s disembodied voice, but we’ve seen her in the tree house already and Paul himself has never laid eyes on her before. It’s too much to hope for that this might be a group descent into madness by the end, which is too bad, because this is a far more engrossing movie if Annie and Paul have obliterated a family already speeding headlong towards that end with little more than their minds and a Subaru. There are shades not only of Bergman, but of von Stroheim and Stevens (via Norris and Dreiser, respectively); it does not take much to put the gentle spinning of a family off of its axis and send the bodies flying. Alas.
What we get instead is the fairly predictable but not wholly unwelcome realm of demonic possession and seances and all that jawn. Again, the best of it is Toni Collette’s levitating spree; we find her in the corners of rooms, perched like some bird of prey. We hear her banging on the pull-down door to the attic while Paul is hiding from her up there, but of course it’s not as simple as her throwing the hook against the door. She is crouched on the door, banging her head frantically against it. It’s one of the last things she does with her head; the next time we see her she’s in the moonlight, sawing her head off with a piece of wire. What the seances cannot achieve, for seances on film are never all that scary anyway, is done with levitation. Something in our collective gorge rises at it; it’s so obviously wrong that we cannot help but wonder at it, even if we can more or less figure out how it was done in post. They are truly the only remotely frightening elements of the film, and I come to you today as a relative horror movie wimp. The rest of the movie is occasionally sort of creepy or odd or cringe-inducing, as when a thirteen-year-old whose throat is closing up has said throat deposited on a county road, but on the whole Hereditary is not here to freak you out.
All this raises what seems like an eminently important question, although I’m not nearly as annoyed by this question as I was by when I asked it four times a day for two months during the heyday of La La Land: why is Hereditary the genre it is? Part of the answer probably lies with Aster, who, based on his choice for his next project, seems genuinely interested in the whole Satanic cult thing. The horror genre is also far broader than the musical, which gives Aster some leeway. For example, Hereditary is probably as close to being in the same basic subgenre as The Wicker Man, which is never scary but does have an utterly fabulous ending (and a scene where a naked woman dances around for a minute?), as it is anything else. Subgenre rules the day in horror, not genre itself, and so it matters less that Hereditary has the trappings of a horror movie. But it still begs the question of why this story is more interesting if Joan is the leader of a cult given to the worship of a minor demon, or if Toni Collette can fly around once she’s possessed, or if a blue light stalks Paul with a vengeance. The real answer is that it probably isn’t, and that the Paimon deal is ill-conceived. The smarmy answer is something about how horror tends to reflect anxieties within a society and tries to address them, but I’m not sure that Hereditary is making a special point about mental illness or grief or family strife through a Stonehenge of decapitations or multiple demonic possessions. Perhaps there’s something in the fact that Annie does not take much convincing to begin communing with Charlie after her death once she learns how, but it seems that the key scene dictating the depths of her pain already happened.
Steve has made (a towering) dinner a few nights after Charlie’s death. Annie has only recently quit screaming after doing so more or less nonstop from her discovery of her daughter’s headless body to her daughter’s burial. Paul, who was driving when Charlie was killed, asks his mother if she doesn’t have something on her mind. What follows is an absolutely unhinged screaming fit which condemns Paul. Not only have you been ungrateful and snide, she says you have not realized my love for you. I want to protect you from how you feel, because Charlie’s death was an accident. But you were the one driving. In other words: I don’t forgive you. Paul withstands this, and at first I thought he might cry, as he is given to doing. He stands his ground instead. Why was she at the party? he asks. And this is the real reason that Annie has been screaming, beyond Paul’s culpability in Charlie’s death. (If it ever comes out that he directed Charlie to eat the cake with all those walnuts she was allergic to, it never comes out.) She was the one who forced Paul to take Charlie to the party; she was the one who overrode both of them. The timeline that ends with Charlie’s head on the side of the road began with Annie’s fierce directive to send her in the other direction, and everyone knows it. Aster has shot in close-ups with some frequency and will continue to do so throughout the movie, but when Annie leaves the table he pulls all the way back. It’s my favorite type of shot he uses, and not just because it mirrors in effect the miniatures that Annie makes for a living. it’s because we can see that vacancies in the house, the space that these people cannot fill, the gaps between them. Annie storms off, and it does not need to be any clearer that her guilt informs her grief. No one has to levitate to make that scary.