What is the scariest thing you can think of, when sitting in the quiet of a pitch-dark room sans the sound of your own breathing even?
It is a ‘klokk’ sound, made by hitting your tongue against the roof of your mouth – playful and teasing, something you may have done back as a child. Sounds fun when you do it sitting with a bunch of other seven-year-olds right? Though not so much when it’s likely a dead thirteen-year-old whose idea of entertainment was to craft nightmarish toys out of dark, sinister materials and make that ‘klokk’ sound once in a while, throwing the living into alertness.
I bet for some of you, gory, evil spirits passing by an alley in a sheet of white or an ominous shadow lurking in a corner of the house is the image that truly spells horror for you. Hereditary proves, and effectively so, that it is otherwise – that the truly terrifying bits are those that wreak havoc on our minds, constrict our throats and make even screaming impossible.
Hereditary begins on a sombre note, with a death and a seemingly uncomfortable, reluctant eulogy. Miniature artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has just lost her mother Ellen, the matriarch of the family, and tries to come to terms with the loss as she describes her mother as a “private, secretive and stubborn” person, while also expressing her surprise at the “strange, unknown” people who have turned up to pay their last respects. The eulogy is a singularly powerful window into Ellen’s character and the force she exerted within the household, leading us to a Pandora’s Box of secrets, manipulation and a general air of malevolence that has had the Graham family in its grip since decades, yet unbeknownst to them.
Annie’s admission of Ellen’s strange persona acts as the death knell for the Graham family, bringing them to ruin. Almost as if on cue, the unspoken evil around her mother’s life and death (in the literal sense, no less) seeps into her mundane household, ripping apart the lives of every other member of the house – her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and her two children – stoned teenager son Peter (Alex Wolff) and the eerily sinister teen daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The irony being, some of the catastrophe is brought about by her own miscalculated actions, while most of it are the inner workings of her personal demons as we’re made privy to, layer by layer.
Written and directed by debut filmmaker Ari Aster, Hereditary relies on a moody build-up and a predictably traditional setting, but steers clear of paying homage to the ‘haunted house’ syndrome oft employed in the horror genre. While its recent counterparts in this genre – particularly The Conjuring and the 2017 Annabelle instalment boasted of big houses against the backdrop of overwhelming landscapes and often reeking of the footprints of overtly evil forces, the Graham family home, secluded and nestled away in picturesque woods with a chic driveway, looks relatively sunny and inviting, except when you looked right in to probe the Grahams and their mysterious ways. Here, the horror does not make a lunge for you from spooky corners or creaky stairways or old forgotten paintings (courtesy Valak, the demon nun from Conjuring 2). The dread and terror in Hereditary lies in the normal, in the way the characters relate to each other and go about their daily lives, almost mocking the superficial placidity of the setting.
For instance, shortly after the funeral, even as the Graham family is found trying to cope with the loss, Annie’s husband Steve gets news of the cemetery getting desecrated, while she herself feels her dead mother’s presence in the miniature workshop. Although it does not contribute tangibly to the plot – by setting off a series of other similar supernatural appearances as is the tendency with horror flicks – it does unsettle the viewer’s mind as much as it does the character’s – proving to be one of the many similar unnerving occurrences throughout the movie.
Annie’s inner life is more tormented than is let on at first glance. She is half-amused at her inability of “sufficiently grieving” for Ellen, yet seeks out a support group to heal herself. She trusts Steve enough to let him in on her dark past and the trauma she has possibly inherited, but not enough to let him know of how she is dealing with the grief or of her own personal demons that later alter their lives fatally. In the support group, she finds her release in expressing her deep-seated resentment for Ellen, who is revealed to have suffered from mental illness as did the rest of her birth family, and seems to have played a role in alienating Peter and Charlie from her feisty daughter. Ellen is the shame Annie neither wanted to keep in her life nor inherit, yet continues to be the shadow our protagonist never truly succeeds in prying off her flesh and soul, eventually eating her up. Quite literally.
Incidentally, the support group is where Annie meets fellow mourner Joan (Ann Dowd), a mysterious yet friendly woman she leans on for advice on moving on after another unspeakably horrific tragedy hits the family. Joan, as we come to understand, may have different views on how to cherish the dead, but even the impulsively-planned séance at her house later does not help in improving matters in Annie’s household, working instead to only magnify the horror already residing in her heart and home.
Toni Collette is fantastic as stricken, complex Annie who is seen constantly attempting to draw the line between reality and nightmares; considering every moment of her anxiety-and-dread filled waking existence feels more like the latter, she sleepwalks through the rough patches, choosing instead to pour her misery into making artistic miniatures and dollhouses. Think about it – what would petrify you more? A Crooked Man baring its jagged, bloody mouth wide open or a miniature diorama of your dead mother (created by you) dressed in white, watching you with deliberate intensity. Collette, who received an Oscar nomination for the 1999 spectacle The Sixth Sense heightens the paranoia and frustration in Hereditary as well, burning slow and ominous till she cannot be rational about it anymore. In fact, one of the striking moments in the film is a dinner table scene where she erupts in volcanic rage shocking both Peter and Steve – if there’s a monologue that can slice through our soul, this is it. Her hard features, the taut lines and the inflamed expression in her eyes come together to terrify you as much as the unseen supernatural in the movie does.
For a protagonist who efficiently straddles the tightrope walk between being fiery and icy, the supporting cast is equally talented and brings forth the necessary tension required for Annie to dig deep into herself. Byrne as Steve has secrets and troubles of his own, but we are never led down that road of perceiving him as more than Annie’s weary, but rock-solid anchor. Milly Shapiro as Charlie wraps you in an eerie uneasiness from the moment she makes an appearance. What could have been a buoyant, adorable teen has been shaped by Aster to look despondent and distressed, filling you with abject despair. So if you find yourself unable to shake off that moody face even days after watching the movie, know you’re not overthinking it. What makes Charlie’s behaviour particularly disturbing is her absolute reluctance to show any kind of emotion in the face of death and loss, despite the fact she was closest to Ellen.
In fact, right after her grandmother’s funeral – when she buries her face in the pillow wondering aloud who would take care of her if Annie died – positively makes your skin crawl. Add to that, her inherited talent of making odd-looking toys from dark, creepy materials and her proclivity for making the heart-stopping ‘klokk’ sound when it was least expected, give her the steely edge most horror-genre characters these days do not possess.
While Collette and Shapiro are outstanding in their respective roles, it is Alex Wolff as Peter who stands out as a strong contender to Collette’s Annie. Truth be told, the movie unfolds as a prolonged, uncomfortable and at times shaky dialogue between these two characters, playing out the deeply entrenched dynamics between them. Their relationship is marked by guilt, suspicion and mistrust – hardly the benchmarks for a healthy parent-child equation. Wolff as Peter delivers a heartfelt and (sometimes) ragged portrayal of a listless, vulnerable, tormented teenager who fails to grasp the reality of his new altered existence. Through the hallucinations and fear that become an inseparable part of his altered new life, his eyes constantly seem to question with disbelief the state he finds himself in – akin to what the audience does, wondering what kind of fate would one have to be born with to be pushed out from laid back obscurity into a spotlight marred by violence and darkness.
For those of you who have ever mulled over your status as an unwanted child in the family (even in jest) or, in all seriousness – dug in to pinpoint the source of the fated patterns in your life, this is a tale that takes it to extreme levels and bares the dirty reality of it all – that maybe our parents are flawed humans after all, that perhaps, we have inherited some of their ghastly blemishes, only to recycle those cursed wounds and turn them into generational damage.
Hereditary is primarily a drama, and remains true to its context till a little after intermission. It is only in the middle of the second half that the psychological finesse used by the director makes a switch to the usual horror elements – of gore, violence, illogical (and occasionally funny) paranormal occurrences and total absurdity that leave you baffled as to what really is the point of the grim downturn in events.
Given the sophistication with which the context and the underlying tension is handled by Aster, the glacial pace of the movie may be forgiven by the audience, but I doubt many would take kindly to the categorically bizarre ending. It leaves too many questions unanswered, and in fact opens us a whole can of new ones that might work great for a sequel. But at this point, you are certain to come out of the theatre looking flummoxed, and maybe even a little indignant for the betrayal handed out to you after the thrill of the initial promise.
The score has been handled by Colin Stetson and determinedly avoids employing easy, cliché music to convey fear. True to the basic tempo of the movie, it builds up gradually – in a hair-raising, nail-biting kind of pace, pulling the rug from right under your feet. Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography complements the atmospheric mood of the plot, revealing the biggest clues and drawing us in, through the right use of angles. My only grouse is with the stingy use of lights through most of the run-time. Even for a horror flick, you find yourself staring at pitch-black emptiness in the hallway, the bedroom, the car, the porch…with some concentrated darkness to portray the workings of the evil. On second thoughts, the style adopted by the cinematographer works in successfully heightening our psychological susceptibilities giving us some of the most chilling moments in the film – a chain of ants scurrying across Annie’s bedroom, the depiction of the tree house bathed in a red glow – almost inviting misfortune, and a coat hanging over the chair…conveniently looking like something (or someone) else we would dare not imagine.
To sum it up, Hereditary is a masterpiece crafted to displace your psychosomatic makeup, and compel you to look from the outside in – where do you go when the home is no longer safe, but how can you even hope to land in the right place when the imprints of your DNA continue to shape your damned fate?