Spoilers Ahead for Hereditary!
All families have their issues and a certain level of dysfunction. However most aren’t dealing with possession, Kings of Hell, and a dead grandmother bent on releasing hell on Earth. But that’s what we’re dealing with in Hereditary. Hey, that’s life. And, for this family, death.
Death Becomes Her (And She Becomes Death)
The film opens with grandma’s funeral. Her daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), gives the eulogy and remarks how she knows almost no one who showed up to pay their respects. Grandma had a secret life dealing with spiritualism and communicating with the dead. Every family has one, right?
Annie’s family has a history of mental illness and tragic loss of life, and her mom seemed to be at the center of all the pain.
The (Horrifying) Road Less Traveled
It’s at this point that the film and director could have taken the easy route and just dived headlong into obvious demonic possession and one gory scene after another, just like most horror movies do. But not here. Yes, there is suspense. There is gore, visualized and implied. But it all serves a purpose, and none of it is gratuitous.
At the heart of Hereditary is a family. A family immersed in grief brought on by unimaginable tragedy. This movie is brought forth from a thoughtful, well written and thought out script with heart.
We are given back story details in natural, non-lecture’y ways, like when Annie goes to a grief therapy group. Most films would just have a husband and wife tell each other things they already know while making breakfast.
Head and Shoulders Above the Rest
There is a lot of foreshadowing and lots of Easter eggs. Charlie, their 13-year-old daughter (and Grandma’s fave.. which should raise a red flag right there!) has always been a bit odd, but after Grandma dies, things are kicked up a couple notches. When a bird flies headlong into a window (Hitchcock, anyone?) she tracks it down and cuts its head off. Disturbing? Definitely. But not as disturbing as her death which it foreshadows.
There are also warnings left by Grandma, who left a note that tells of impending sacrifice for the greater good. Of course, when you’re dealing with spiritual nomad, the term ‘greater good’ is very subjective.
Her brother, Peter (rising star Alex Wollf) is a loner, a stoner, and kind of a whiny bitch. But when you blame yourself for your sister’s decapitation you’re bound to be saddled with emotional baggage.
Bad situations are compounded by bad choices which leads to more tension in the home. And it is here where the film really shines. The director makes smart choices and engaging camera shots.
Then there’s the music. The score plays hauntingly in the background, except when it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s no music, no natural sound, nothing. The silence is intentionally uncomfortable. But what it adds to the film is of immense value, even if you don’t realize it at the time. In fact, if you did realize it, that would mean it was being done poorly.
The movie is set in the Pacific northwest. The town is remote and the family home is isolated. The isolation of the home, which mirrors the isolation each character faces, is almost a character in itself. You get the feeling the family was never close and is expert in building walls around themselves, but Grandma’s machinations intensify the loneliness.
The End, aka WTF Was That?!?!
For all the exploration of grief, betrayal, mental illness, and distrust, this is still a horror film. And that explodes onto the screen for act three!
Peter loses control of his body and slams his face into his desk.
Charlie’s spirit is drawing disturbing sketches.
Dad gets immolated!
Oh yes, everything and everyone is going off the rails. But that’s nothing until the final scene, in the treehouse. The usually sparsely decorated treehouse now is a shrine to Grandma, with several of her followers (along with some headless hosts) populating the space. It’s indicated that a spirit has taken over Peter’s body, but we have no idea who until it’s explained. Even then we’re still shaken/confused. There was a mega-clue dropped earlier as to what was gonna go down, but so much goes down so quickly we have trouble keeping up. And we’re not alone. Gamespot was as confused as we were and went straight to the source, who told us the ending isn’t a metaphor.. it just is what it is.
Honestly, that answer is kind of disappointing. For a film that takes us on such a thoughtful, painful journey, to be told that the end means nothing more than the fact that a Hell King now walks among us in the form of an adolescent leaves us a bit unfulfilled. It lets the audience off easy, but anyone who stuck with the film to that point was invested in the family committed to a thoughtful ending.
In the end, this is a really good solid movie. Not A Quiet Place good, but definitely worth the time and ten bucks.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
A beautiful, flaming drink called Playing With Fire, which is exactly what it sounds like: A flaming coupe of Cognac flavored with spiced dates and warming spices like cinnamon, cloves and star anise. It’s a tasty recipe that has the flames of hell shooting right out of it!