Despite the gory allure that comes with classic horror films, there is a living, breathing by-lane that has become the favorite haunt for horror purists. This is the place where stories are a lot more subtle than the smack-and-jab terror that we are so used to, resulting in a form of film-making where ghosts and spirits are not the central theme of the narrative. Instead, they are used just as a tool to tell a human story wrought with self-deprecation, regrets and over-strung emotions. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) was about the psychological struggles of a single mother who is stressed out between her demanding work and a hyperactive kid with no one to talk to about. It is only a way of story-telling that her fears and insecurities are manifested and personified into the titular Babadook. Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) was about a New England family who lived at the edge of a rough, desolate world where food was scarce and death an everyday occurrence. Witchcraft, once again, was the personification of their innate desire to ‘magically’ get rid of their troubles so that the family could survive.
Ari Aster’s Hereditary follows a similar template, albeit much more nuanced in its treatment of the subject. Annie Leigh Graham has had a strained relationship with her mother Ellen who had been an overly critical woman, always reminding Annie that she had wanted a boy and not her. Even during her mother’s funeral, Annie has not been able to forgive her and does not know how to feel about her death. In order to help herself cope with her “pent-up grief”, Annie visits gatherings for ‘People who have lost loved ones’. As Annie hesitantly speaks her heart to the strangers around her, the tragic story of the Leigh family is uncovered. This is where you catch the first sense of a pattern of mania in the family, hence the name ‘Hereditary’. From hereon, the theme of mental illness or psychological instability becomes an ever-lurking shadow in every scene.
As Annie hesitantly speaks her heart to the strangers around her, the tragic story of the Leigh family is uncovered. This is where you catch the first sense of a pattern of mania in the family, hence the name ‘Hereditary’. From hereon, the theme of mental illness or psychological instability becomes an ever-lurking shadow in every scene.
Even while Annie is coping with her mother’s death, another tragedy hits the family through the death of her 13-year old daughter Charlie who falls victim to a freak accident. Annie is devastated. Emotionally suffocated and not knowing what to do about it, she finds herself going back to the gathering where she meets a middle-aged woman called Joan, who claims to have lost her son and grandson. Being a mother, Annie sees the same pain that she felt, in Joan’s eyes. Inadvertently, they become each other’s support-system. Things take a strange turn when Joan starts telling Annie about seances that she had been doing to summon the spirit of her son. Despite Annie’s natural skepticism, Joan persuades her to come with her so that she could experience it herself. Obsessed by the idea, Annie returns home to try the process herself. And it works. What feels like the spirit of her dear departed child at first, soon turns into something much more malevolent.
Much of Hereditary’s appeal comes from the abrupt, sharp-cut screenplay that drives home the dichotomy of sanity. Days turn into nights like the flick of a switch. Scenes freeze into frames just when you buckle yourself up for the inevitable. Director Aster also uses screen elements, like the characteristic tongue-clicking of Annie’s daughter Charlie, that become plot-drivers in the film. Staying uncannily rigorous about the theme of the story, Aster creates a mood around heredity through Annie’s miniature-creations workshop where she unabashedly recreates everything in her life into accurate miniature shapes. Just like her mother’s dysfunctional family, Annie’s own family is dysfunctional even within the facade of normalcy. That’s her inheritance. In turn, her miniatures inherit her life. If you go back to the opening scene, this very theme acts as a prelude wherein a continuous shot takes us around Annie’s studio, finally focussing onto one particular room, zooming into it until it fit the screen, and then transitioning into the real room of her son Peter. Thus, completing an unending circle of inheritance even before it began.
Aster’s film is reminiscent of the critically acclaimed indie Irish horror film A Dark Song (2016) directed by Liam Gavin, which also revolves around a mother going through a rigorous self-punishing ritual for months, in order to summon the spirit of her dead child. Just like in Hereditary, the ritual goes wrong and she finds herself caught between the clutches of unimaginable evil. Unlike the gripping, nerve-wracking pace of A Dark Song, Aster’s film unravels itself a tad too rapidly in the second act. Even though every single thread regarding the family history is explained, you feel rushed to an absurd end. However, it is Toni Collette’s brilliant performance that keeps you invested in the narrative. Balancing complex emotions like grief, a manic energy lying dormant underneath and a flowing desperation, Toni plays every single emotion effortlessly. Equally striking performances come from the talented Alex Wolff as he accurately showcases a lanky teenager with an estranged relationship with his mother and the guilt of a brother. Milly Shapiro, who plays Charlie, effects a haunting presence through her persona and the defining tongue-clicking.
Hereditary is not for everyone. There is no set sequence to its story, ending with the victory of good over evil. There are no ghosts or metaphysical phenomena that you can treat your eyes with. You can only find a dire sense of unshakeable doom over a family that is coping with loss.
Hereditary is not for everyone. There is no set sequence to its story, ending with the victory of good over evil. There are no ghosts or metaphysical phenomena that you can treat your eyes with. You can only find a dire sense of unshakeable doom over a family that is coping with loss. If you are an ardent horror fan and have already watched the other films that I have mentioned, you will find the story as a good attempt but not quite there. Even so, it would be interesting to follow Aster’s work just for the sake of her unique style of story-telling if not anything else.