Grief and depression is something many of us are very familiar with. Hereditary takes the subject and molds it into one of the deepest most haunting horror films of the past decade.
First things first, I will disclaim here that this review will not be spoiler free. To fully discuss the deeper meaning of this film I will have to take a dive into some of the main twists of the movie. I will also use this time to tell you that this film is not for everyone. It is a slow burn that uses very little music to build tension and the ending of the film has some disturbing images that are custom to horror but can be unsettling. That being said, the horror aspect of Hereditary is more of an allegory for how we can become lost in our grief and despair.
Let’s begin with the first act and the set up to what I believe to be the new age Rosemary’s Baby of the horror/suspense genre. We are introduced to our main characters Annie (Toni Colletee, The Sixth Sense), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne, The Usual Suspects), and her two children Peter (Alex Wolff, Jumanji 2) and Charlie (played by Milly Shapiro in her first film) at Annie’s mother’s funeral. We learn quickly that Charlie was practically raised by her grandmother and because of this, Annie had a very complex relationship with her mother. Charlie and Annie are both attempting everything they can to cope with their loss. Charlie with her drawings, and Annie with her model creations she makes as set pieces.
Annie is going to grief therapy sessions. She explains how her father and brother both died due to complications from mental illness and how that made her and her mother grow apart. She also shares how she will sleepwalk at night, and that one night she, under no fault of her own, almost burned her entire house down. Because of this incident, she was forced into therapy sessions which ultimately brought her closer to her mother. As a way to help Charlie cope with the loss, Annie takes it into her hands to push her daughter to go to an after school party with her brother as an attempt to help Charlie bond with the world. Not wanting to spend time with her at the party, Peter leaves Charlie to eat a piece of chocolate cake that gives her an allergic reaction. On drugs, and in a panic for his sister’s life, Peter swerves off the road killing his Charlie in the process.
In the second act, the complexity of grief and loss come in to play. Annie, now having lost her mother and youngest child also has to deal with the fact that her son killed his sister at a party she essentially forced them to attend. Peter, now living with the fact that he killed his sister finds himself haunted by Charlie. He loses his grip on school and his friend groups and subjects himself to his room. We witness the tension rise within the family. Steve no longer believes Annie is sleepwalking but actually performing these rituals to bring her daughter back on purpose. Annie believes she can stop the demon by seeking out Charlies ghost, and Peter believes his mother is trying to kill him. As the despair becomes too much, each member of the Graham family becomes more and more estranged. We begin to find ourselves lost in the psychology of the broken family due to their extreme circumstance. It would be hard to imagine losing a child. It would be even harder to imagine losing a child in the way that Annie did. Therefore, much of the haunting and trauma throughout most of the film seems unreal.
My comparison to Rosemary’s Baby comes more to the style. No jump scares, just deep messages about being trapped in one’s own mind. As we move into the final act, we as viewers do not know what to believe when it comes to the actual haunting of Graham family. For Annie, she claims to have never known her mother as the leader of a cult. From her perspective she is a sympathetic and loving mother that passed away peacefully. As a viewer, we have a hard time believing Annie’s claims of innocence due to the circumstances that play out throughout the narrative. She is shown to be calm and collected yet everyone around her becomes more and more concerned over her mental health and every tragedy can lead back to a decision Annie made as an attempt to hold on to her loss. Although we begin to see symbols of ghosts and haunting images as the horror element of the film starts to take flight; we find ourselves wondering what is real?
As the film progresses we learn that the cult that Annie’s mother was a part of is very real and possessing the house and attempting to offer up Peter as a sacrifice to the demon Paiman. However, the real story is about how hard it is to let go. The reason Annie is unable to burn Charlie’s sketchbook and the reason Peter is ultimately possessed by his sister is an allegory on how we as humans refuse to remember the good in life as we become overwhelmed with self blame. Often we look toward the sad, the bleak, and the woeful attitude Satan tries to instill in us when we succumb to tragedy. Annie’s model homes are what she uses to use to cope with her life. However, when it her grief becomes too much she seeks other avenues that ultimately doom her and her family. Her unwillingness to accept the tragedy in her life and focus on the good paved the way for the demon to possess her entire household, losing her own life in the process.
Ari Aster has created a masterful film that will leave you guessing. The fact that his film is virtually scoreless may not be to the taste of some, but to myself this one decision makes Hereditary what it is. A slow, tension filled genuine horror that will leave you looking over your shoulder for days without the use of cheap thrills. There is also not question the choice for the title. If we choose to let evil into our lives, it will affect everyone around us. Unlike God, sin is not omnipresent, it must find a host to be spread. If we choose to let sin dominate our decisions, we cannot find happiness.