A Walking Study in Demonology
Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot.
Hereditary has inherited many of the preoccupations that haunt contemporary horror movies – disturbed children, large houses hosting malevolent entities, creepy child drawings, humanoid figures lurking in dark corners, demon worship, dread inducing aural motifs, and many more. All the hits are here but unlike its spiritual brethren – Sinister, Insidious and the like, Ari Aster’s movie is psychologically astute and carefully plotted.
It’s a story that taps into deep fears about the damage passed to children by their damaged parents. Its boilerplate villain, with traditional weaknesses like standing in low light and sticking to ceilings, gives agency to the accrued fear and resentment that builds within a dysfunctional household – souping up the tragedy and emotional intensity to unbearable levels. This is Blumhouse with brains, and the effect of this layered menace is undeniably felt. It’s a film that works on you like Kubrick did with The Shining – a chiller and a thriller rolled into one.
That isn’t to say you won’t need a whiteboard to track the intricacies of the drip fed backstory, because simple it ain’t. The movie’s demon, King Paimon, a transphobic member of Hell’s royal family, so also a fan of hereditary privilege, is a keeper of secrets and the font of all Earthly knowledge. Consequently, perhaps only he knows how or why he possessed a maternal line in search of a viable, vulnerable male host, whom he could settle in and use to reign a disparate band of naked suburbanites.
On first viewing it’s not clear why previous attempts at infiltrating the male members of Toni Collette’s troubled brood have failed. We learn that amongst the family’s enviable suite of mental illnesses, some or all of which we’re groomed to believe may be the devil’s work, most notably dead Granny’s multiple personality disorder, “suicide” has claimed two of the male line, Collette’s father and brother. Did Collette, a disturbed somnambulist, off them to prevent a takeover, just as she tried to miscarry her firstborn son? Later, during another sleepwalking session, she almost burned the entire brood, including tomboy daughter Charlie, the girl with a boy’s name and apple of Granny’s eye, to death by dousing them in lighter fluid and striking a match. Was she endowed with Paimon’s notorious ability to see into the future, manifest in her subconscious? And if so, why was she not possessed by the King himself – did it skip a generation from Grandma to granddaughter as it appears? Let’s hope Ari Aster knows.
Still, a little ambiguity makes for a more intriguing spectacle and Hereditary certainly is that – a film constructed like one of Toni Collette’s miniaturist doll houses. Aster establishes the metaphor in his opening scene, promising a movie that works the same way. It’s meticulously constructed, imbued with very fine details, some of which are invisible to the naked eye, and takes place inside a house where the camera peers into different rooms – each shot at distance; nightmarish tableaus like the ones created by Collette in her workshop. Just like a doll house we have to take a step back to see the whole design, something hidden from the audience until the movie’s last, Grand Guignol moments.
It’s a pleasure watching a movie where every scene is important, often a harbinger of forthcoming horror, and the cast are thankfully plugged into the plot with the same care. Collette, as a brutalized, grief stricken mother, sells the story’s high intensity shocks, while her kids – Peter, credibly fucked up in the hands of Alex Wolff, and Charlie, played by Milly Shapiro whose appearance here, akin to Eric Stoltz in Mask, is deliberately and necessarily androgynous, with a conflicted performance to match, add the humanity that distinguishes effective horror from pantomime schlock.
Hereditary may not be original; it contains the DNA of many other movies (and one or two of the shots) but Aster, on his directorial debut, has understood that the key to selling outlandish high-concept horror, framed with cod-demonology, is to approach it like you were making The Godfather. He renders the family’s mistrust and disintegration vividly, and does it with the kind of craft all too often substituted for characters backing into inanimate objects or family pets for the sake of a lazy jump scare in many a horror hack job. If he can pass on these storytelling genes, the genre may yet enjoy a golden age in twenty years.