Hereditary

Hereditary (2018) Director: Ari Aster

★★★☆☆

In his directorial debut, Ari Aster shocks and disturbs in Hereditary, a film that is rife with allusions to cinematic horror classics, and one which I would put thematically on par with The Exorcist. In this movie, there are lots of lurking shadowy figures and hidden details used as misdirection in the background of shots, sometimes blurry, mostly we lean forward hoping to understand what we are seeing –are they real or not? The film is framed by a series of toy miniatures that cause a looming sense of dread –to what extent are the characters the mere dolls of evil, invisible forces? Studio A24 continues to yield new and inventive films that triumphantly break through the yawning mold and malaise of Hollywood. Hereditary is a film about the trauma of loss, grief, and inheritance as one family becomes tormented by a demonic presence as a legacy from their late grandmother.

At the outset we see an obituary –we meet a relatively normal family whose grandmother has died, however we soon learn that the grandmother was reclusive and even somewhat disturbed possibly leading to all manner of hereditary troubles in her family –suicides, violence, mental illness, and a sleepwalking daughter named Annie Graham (Toni Collette). Annie is a builder of miniatures –these often become thematic elements in the film with occasional foreshadowing, building a lingering sense of dread. Her husband Steve is a psychiatrist and the perennial rock of skepticism when it comes to things related to the occult. They have a loner, thirteen year-old daughter named Charlie, and an alienated pot-smoking sixteen year-old son named Peter (Alex Wolff). One night, Annie forces her two children to attend a party together but Charlie eats cake with nuts which causes her throat to swell. As Peter races her to a hospital Charlie gasps for air leans out the window only to be decapitated.

With a new tragedy in the family, the Graham’s cohesion begins to unravel. Annie attends a support group where a woman teaches her how to perform a seance to communicate with her daughter. Later, Annie performs the seance and unwittingly invites an evil presence upon her family. Strange things begin happening, especially to her son Peter who becomes possessed in the middle of class as his face is repeatedly smashed into his desk, and also Annie finds the rotting decapitated corpse of her mother inn the attic (decapitation is an ongoing feature in this film). When Annie’s husband refuses to support Annie, she invites him to burn a diary that was found with drawings of Peter in it and immediately Steve is engulfed in flames. When Peter emerges from his room to find his father’s charred remains he is chased by his demon-possessed mother into the attic. In a highly disturbing scene Peter witnesses his mother severing her own head with piano wire. Eventually, we learn that Peter’s late grandmother was part of a cult intending to resurrect a demon spirit called Paimon (a demon king of hell) to inhabit the body of Peter. In the end, he is crowned as Paimon in his treehouse surrounded by naked, prostrate cult members and the headless corpses of his mother and father.

The idea of a disturbing demon-spawned cult has been done many times before, but somehow it feels creepier, more evil, and more authentic in Hereditary. The possibilities of this movie make it seem somehow plausible that a demonic presence might be lurking out there in the night. Of the two horror films thus far released by Ari Aster, I prefer Midsommar to Hereditary but I appreciate the direction this new brand of intelligent scary movie-making is headed. Apparently Aster is working on a new epic portrait “nightmare comedy” film to be released next year called Disappointment Blvd. starring Joaquin Phoenix.

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