It’s awfully hard to please me when it comes to demon-possession films. They are usually packed with so many standard scares that have thoroughly lost their charm: bone-cracking body distortions, ceiling-crawling monstrosities, various hisses and grunts, spooky seance scenes, and the poltergeist movements of household furniture. I’ve seen it. Lots. I just wait for the inevitable jump-scare coordinated with a musical sting, but I’m rarely truly affected.
It might surprise you then to hear that while Hereditary invokes all the aforementioned tropes, it is nevertheless one of the more devastating horror films I’ve seen. I suspect most viewers will enjoy the experience (if “enjoy” can be used for such a feel-bad film), but I think the emotional impact is going to be strongest for mothers – especially mothers of teenagers – and for grown children who were hurt by their mothers (young children should not watch this film).
Hereditary opens after the death of grandmother Ellen, at a stilted memorial service attended by her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), son-in-law Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and grandchildren Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie clearly experiences conflicted and partially repressed emotions about her mother, who sounds like a woman devoted to her family who also harbored a decidedly ugly side. Annie has no time to process her grief and anger before another horrific loss hits the family: Peter takes his sister Charlie to a party, and through his lack of supervision she is killed in a gruesome incident.
The family is, of course, devastated. They try to get on with their lives. Annie works in the field of miniatures, developing high-end dioramas not only for commercial and artistic clients, but visions of her own home and family life. Through these we are exposed to increasingly disturbing undercurrents: Annie’s fascination with Charlie’s grisly death, and the spectre of the always-present, spooky grandmother. In one chilling vignette Ellen is shown baring her breast to feed the infant Charlie, a child she was devoted to fiercely. It becomes obvious something was wrong with Charlie, and now the same something is hunting Peter. He has nightmares, aural and visual hallucinations, and is becoming increasingly frightened of his tense, unpredictable mother. As Peter’s safety is increasingly threatened Annie cycles between a desperately protective attitude, and some kind of deep-seated – or is it unholy? – resentment of her oldest and now only child. Unfortunately, this is not a case of “things are going to get worse before they get better” – things just get worse.
Hereditary owes a great deal of its effectiveness to a realistic portrayal of family life, and especially of children. Children in these sort of films are often two-dimensional figures; murdered or tortured or threatened. Tragically lost perhaps, innocent poppets with sing-songy nursery rhymes. But in the time we get to know Charlie and Peter, they are absolutely average children and they behave as such (even despite Charlie’s otherworldly, creepy tics). The children in this film are not props or secondary characters; they are central to the developing horror. Their victimhood is made disturbingly real.
There are two other factors that make the film the Mayor of Creepsville. One, the looming spectre of violent mental illness – again, boilerplate in terms of a supernatural film, but nevertheless well-depicted here. Ellen had been diagnosed with Dissassociative Identity Disorder, and we learn her son – Annie’s brother – killed himself after leaving a suicide note claiming Ellen was “trying to put people in his body”. As Annie’s state begins to deteriorate, you can watch the unease that Peter and Steve experience, wondering if she is going to succumb to violent, not just erratic, behaviors. As the viewers, however, we come to know that Ellen had long ago prepared her own son as host to a demon, a plan which derailed with his suicide. From that point, Ellen turned her efforts to cajole her own daughter into having children, attempting to groom them as well (a cryptic Ellen note to Annie about their “sacrifices” further cements this gut-wrenching knowledge). Seeing the family through a pitying narrative about mental illness, versus perceiving the actual sinister forces at play, is a deliciously unsettling experience.
But scariest in the film is the depiction of maternal abuse. Abuse at the hands of one’s mother is nothing new in film, and is so often rendered in garish,, often cartoony moments of physical violence – from Joan Crawford’s classic “No more wire hangers!” to Norma Bates’ psychotic obsession with her son’s sex life. But Hereditary gets the more subtle and more terrifying aspects of parental abuse dead-on, as best illustrated in a tense dinner scene where Annie and Peter erupt into argument. No hands fly and Annie does not hurl a string of expletives at her son, but her vitriolic, self-centered anguish at the hands of his teenage scorn, and her obsession with his inability to accept responsibility for his role in Charlie’s accident, makes the scene easily the most disturbing in the film. Best of all, Hereditary deliberately doesn’t answer the question: is Annie’s animus directed at Peter for being, simply, a reckless teenager – something she cannot cope with given the ungodly pressures on the family? Or does she sense the demon taking residence, and is her hatred a human response to its evil presence?
Finally, seen in the film’s denouement we realize Annie has been a victim, not a perpetrator, and perhaps the most cruelly-used of all. From her earliest childhood with an abusive mother, absent father, the traumatizing loss of her brother – and in the grip of human and otherworldly forces she had no knowledge of – she has struggled at every turn to try to free the four of them from a horror they had no chance of escaping.
There is only one complaint I have about this near-perfect film, but it’s a big one. It turns out Yes, there is in fact not only a demon, but also an alive-and-well cult who’d been working with Ellen to provide a corporeal host from her specific bloodline. We discover the cult has been pulling the strings all along, that the demon was partially residing in Charlie from a very early age, and the family was doomed from the beginning – as illustrated by both the miniatures allegory and an especially tragic scene when Annie attempts to destroy a possessed book and succeeds only in immolating her husband. What we are left then, is the systematic torture and gruesome murders within a family, and most especially the psychological, mental, and physical torture of Peter. I tend to lose interest in watching a child be tortured in a horror film; there has to be a greater point to the story and here, there really wasn’t. It wasn’t a fair fight. But we all need a downer now and then, and Hereditary provides this – deliciously, frame-by-frame, and expertly-rendered.