Hereditary June 21, 2018
2 Hrs., 6 Mins.
ear the end of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the controversial Roman Polanski’s occult masterpiece, our eponymous heroine cannot believe what she is seeing. She has just entered the living room of her next-door neighbors, the hoary Castavets. The room, pristinely decorated, is bristling with guests. Her neighbors are here too, and so is Rosemary’s mendacious husband, Guy. Her recently birthed baby boy, who supposedly died in the
hospital, is, to her surprise, nestled in a shadowed cradle tucked in the corner of the room. She is holding a knife, worried about what she might encounter.
Numbly, Rosemary walks toward the crib. She pulls back the veil surrounding the bed. Her face twists. Her first instinct is to cover her mouth to stop herself from screaming. She turns around, nervously scanning the room.
“What have you done to it?” she finally asks, barely suppressing a shriek. “What have you done to its eyes?”
“He has its father’s eyes,” one of the Castavets replies.
That can’t be true: Guy’s eyes look nothing like this. His are brown; the baby’s are yellow. Rosemary is corrected. The baby’s father isn’t Guy: the baby’s father is the devil. The guests start chanting. “Hail Satan!,” they say in unison. Rosemary collapses. This can’t be.
Although I've always found the unnecessarily expository and simplistic finale of Rosemary’s Baby to be among its few faults (aside from the criminal behavior of its writer and director), it has always been among the few moments in the film that remain intact in my memory, almost shot for shot. Perhaps this is because it is the moment in the movie when everything we had feared might happen for the previous two hours became true; perhaps this is because we'd like to believe that what we’re seeing isn’t true.
Conclusions like this — ones so horrifying that we do not want to accept them — are generally uncommon in the horror genre. Despite the genre’s bent for terror, relatively happy endings, considering the circumstances, are standard. If a conclusion prefers to go the nihilistic route — really drill in the idea that evil has won — it is usually delivered with a snarky grin. An ending as proudly provocative as the one found in Rosemary’s Baby, though, is anomalous — and arguably part of the reason it burns in the memory. Not entirely because it’s so scary, but because it's so unforgettably audacious.
Hereditary, a new tale of the macabre by Ari Aster, a filmmaker making his feature debut, also ends boldly. But the finale found here, in contrast to the one in Rosemary’s Baby, is genuinely terrifying — so unfathomable that the friends with whom I attended a screening departed the theater rather dizzy and bug-eyed. I did too. The overarching movie is sinister. But the ending is what makes the film so overwhelmingly disquieting. As we walked toward the parking lot, we had difficulties coherently expressing what we felt.
The characters in Hereditary also have a hard time processing what they’re feeling. They comprise the Utah-based Graham family. Like the clan at the center of Robert Redford’s great genealogical melodrama Ordinary People, from 1980, the Grahams always seem to be grieving.
As Hereditary opens, Ellen, the enigmatic matriarch, dies. No one is particularly sad about her passing. When her daughter, the gloomy-eyed Annie (Toni Collette), delivers a eulogy at her funeral, she is remarkably placid. She didn’t really know her mother: she was a private person. Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne, cheery, to a point), is unfazed; their son, the lanky, mop-haired Peter (Alex Wolff), is more concerned with how much marijuana he might smoke in the next week. Only Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the inexpressive baby of the family, seems to mind. But even then, the latter is so inward and joyless that her sadness is only vaguely discernible in the air orbiting around her.
It is obvious that this family was dysfunctional long before Ellen passed. Annie and Steve are at a point in their marriage where they trade niceties more often than they do expressions of love. Peter, while not intrinsically rebellious, is disconnected from his family. Charlie seems confused and resentful, choosing to live in a self-made world rather than the one actually surrounding her. We sense that Ellen, who sounds manipulative, uncaring, and secretive, had helped condemn her descendants to a lifetime of misery before meeting her demise. An assortment of monologues perfervidly delivered by Collette confirm this contention.
We do not find out what Steve does for a living, and do not know much about Peter and Charlie besides the fact that they are respectively prone to partying and cutting the heads off dead birds. We are consistently reminded, though, that Annie is a miniaturist artist. Her works, largely inspired by her everyday life, are all found in a cramped workroom in her home’s second story. (The movie is so preoccupied with them, I initially thought the film might climax in a strange “everyone is a doll!”-style plot twist. I was mistaken.)
But it is neither the familial discord nor the doll-based paranoia that brings on the horror movie histrionics we anticipate per se. They come about shortly after Annie starts attending group therapy sessions. Some time after beginning her unofficial membership, she is befriended by the motherly Joan (Ann Dowd), who offers herself as a friend outside of meetings. Annie begins going to her apartment in the afternoons, at least sporadically, to break down her miseries. The tide shifts, however, when Joan suggests Annie try to supernaturally contact the deceased to abate her grief.
Such leads Hereditary to grow progressively batshit. By the time its closer comes around, we aren’t so sure what to make of it. One thing is clear, though: This movie, which sophisticatedly unifies familial antipathy and mystic horror, is atypically frightening. It is more upsetting than it is scary — almost traumatic. Its ancestral strife is so recognizable, at least basally, that it becomes personal.
Akin to how Rosemary’s Baby made the natural process of pregnancy and eventual childbirth nightmarish, or how The Omen, from 1976, turned adoption into a dangerous game, Hereditary turns the psychological hellscape that is mourning into something far more blood-curdling. The dilemma is unsolvable. It is tethered to this family and how they cope and interact. (And because so much of the feature takes place within the Graham household, there is rarely a moment during which we feel safe. And home is the one location at which we should feel safe.)
The movie is fortunately never outrightly allegorical, which was something I more or less suspected at the outset due to pre-viewing opines that made comparisons to Darren Aronofsky's polarizing mother!, from 2017. The last act, and most of what comes before it, is, for all intents and purposes, literal.
Hereditary cohesively merges the hardships that come with ordinary emotional hindrances and the evils that come with the arrival of the vengeful supernatural. It is more considerable than a typical genre exercise. It is a warping of the classic family drama; it is a reimagining of the occult-centric horror subgenre so in vogue a half-century ago. It is unmistakably layered. As I wrote in my 2017 review of Rosemary’s Baby, “A touchstone in substantial horror movies, from Psycho (1960) to Carrie (1976), is that a good movie could be made even without the interference of horror set pieces.” So it goes with Hereditary. Without its terrors, it would make for a hair-raising family drama. But it's more than that. Its dizzying ouroboros of a narrative, and especially its Polanski-style ending, ensures that. A