Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary first published by Sight & Sound, July 2018

Review: A family has lost its head. After text announces the passing of elderly Ellen Taper Leigh in her daughter Annie’s home, Hereditary opens with a long fluid take of three proximate houses: first a treehouse (also the film’s final image), then a workroom in the house opposite, and finally, in the workroom, a scale model of the house (with the wall removed from the front to expose the elaborately crafted interiors). As the camera moves closer to a bedroom in the model, and to a figure lying in the mini bed, we hear a knock, and – impossibly – Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne) walks right in to wake his teenaged son Peter (Alex Wolff) for Ellen’s funeral. 

The trick of blurring a model with the larger reality that it imitates is borrowed from the The Awakening (2011) – a film which similarly stages the burden of grief, the persistence of the dead and the seductiveness of delusion – or even from The Shining (1980) – with its similar pitting of child against unravelling adult. Yet in opening with this house-within-a-house, constructed by artist Annie (Toni Collette, excellent) to work – in microcosm – through her family’s long, tragic history and her own difficult relationship with Ellen, first-time writer/director Ari Aster establishes two things: first, the sense, right from the start, that the Grahams are somebody else’s playthings, like the dolls that their strange 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) collects; and second, that this early mood of playbox paranoia, never once relaxed in the film, will be managed with the sort of painstaking attention to domestic detail that Annie herself brings to her art. 

The strange graffiti etched into the Grahams’ wallpaper – and of course reproduced by Annie in miniature – can be recognised as the writing on the wall for a dysfunctional clan whose suppressed demons must eventually out. Still, Aster will take his time parcelling out all their tortuous secrets, compartmentalised within the bourgeois veneer of the Grahams’ suburban life, or hidden in plain sight in interpolated boxes, images and dreams. Here the Leigh legacy will come home to roost with the latest generation – and Aster throws in a whole palette of haunted-house tropes (seances and spectres, creaky corridor and creepy attic, infestations of ants and flies) as much to confound as to clarify, given that we are being misdirected no less than the Grahams are being carefully manipulated. The big reveal, when it comes, is played with a disarming literalness – but its unhinged irrationality also makes it an effective and affecting metaphor for a family’s inheritance of guilt, recrimination and madness. Aster’s artistry here is phenomenally assured, even classical, as he deftly mixes subgenres, and keeps the camera focused more on his bewildered characters than on the horrors that either they or we can see. Whether viewed as a psychological or supernatural thriller, an insidious ghost story, a literal cult movie, or Rosemary’s Baby (1968) after the infant has come of age, Hereditary is diabolically good.

Synopsis: Somewhere in America, 2018. After secretive 78-year-old Ellen Taper Leigh dies, her unloving artist daughter Annie, son-in-law Steve, teen grandson Pete and beloved (but affectless) 13-year-old granddaughter Charlie struggle to grieve. Annie sees Ellen’s ghost. Steve conceals news that Ellen’s grave has been desecrated. Charlie also has ghostly visions, and decapitates a dead pigeon. At a support group, Annie reveals her guilty resentment towards controlling Ellen, and sorrow at the earlier deaths of Ellen’s husband and schizophrenic son. After going into anaphylactic shock at a party, Charlie is decapitated on the way to the hospital – with a stoned Pete at the wheel. Distraught with grief, Annie meets Joan at the support group, and reveals how once, while sleep-walking, she almost set fire to Pete, Charlie and herself. At a tense dinner, Annie openly blames Pete for Charlie’s death. Joan teaches an initially skeptical Annie a seance ritual. Annie performs the ritual at home with a reluctant Steve and Pete, and all three – but especially Annie and Pete – start having supernatural experiences. Finding a mutilated photo of Pete in Joan’s candle-strewn apartment, Annie realises that Joan was in a coven with Ellen, trying to conjure the demon spirit Paimon. Annie discovers Ellen’s decapitated corpse in the attic. Steve brings a self-injured Pete home, and spontaneously combusts. Beleaguered by Charlie’s ghost, aged cultists and a possessed Annie (who decapitates herself), Pete leaps out the attic window. In Charlie’s treehouse, Joan crowns Pete the resurrected Paimon.

© Anton Bitel