Hereditary, a new scare-fest written and directed by Ari Aster, is now in wide release. If there’s a genre that it best fits into, let’s call it horror-puzzler. Strange and awful things happen to a family, but who is doing those terrible things to whom or, more exactly, who is making the family do them to each other, keeps changing. But then, at the very end, we have every reason not to believe what we are seeing with our own eyes.
The film opens with a funeral. The deceased is the elderly mother of Annie Graham, played by Toni Collette, an artist who lives with her husband and two teenage children in a mid-western state. Annie is famous for miniature constructs of domestic life, often using dolls posed in sometimes unsettling scenes. Steve, her husband, played by Gabriel Byrne, has become used to Annie’s often strange behavior, which has included bouts of sleepwalking. Their son, Peter, played by Alex Wolff, is a high-school senior, and their thirteen year old daughter, Charlie, played by Milly Shapiro, is sullen and private, exhibiting personality traits of her disturbed mother.
There are indications of hallucinations, or perhaps a haunting spirit, soon after the funeral. Then, Steve gets a call from the cemetery that Annie’s mother’s grave has been desecrated. But he doesn’t tell Annie. Annie shows signs of confusion and distress; she attends a “survivors” meeting, and confesses to feelings of guilt, but with no cause.
Then, the film veers into shock territory, culminating in a scene that has caused audiences to scream. At that point, the story shifts away from Charlie, who had seemed to be the central character, to her brother. Supernatural elements, suggesting a Rosemary’s Baby type of tale, start to dominate. A woman from the survivors’ meeting recognizes Annie, and has her sit in on a seance where the woman communicates with her dead grandson. Annie is so unnerved that she runs out in hysterics. Annie confesses to Peter that she has had long-standing fears about his fate, starting from when she was pregnant with him.
What makes this ersatz “ghost” story intriguing, and often gripping, is the skillful placement of familiar. time-tested horror film tropes mixed into its absorbing story of a dysfunctional family. Steve is cold and domineering, but also timid when it comes to Annie’s hysterical demands. Peter is distant and defensive around his parents, and is into heavy marijuana use. Charlie has a secret life, and frequently hallucinates strange images and light waves. In short, domestic life in the Graham household is strained to say the least.
The shocks and surprises keep coming, greatly abetted by Toni Collette’s brilliance. She’s got a bagful of actor’s shticks that’s second to none, and she pulls them out gleefully. But, when it’s all over, it’s not at all clear what really happened. In Rosemary’s Baby, it’s possible to accept that Rosemary hallucinated the entire story; that every on-screen moment is grounded in reality. But this film’s schema is too messy for that. Since it’s unlikely that Annie and Peter are both hallucinating, the only alternative is a supernatural story of an underground cult of satan worshippers. For me, that’s just too remote and fuzzily detailed to be scary.
The problem may start with the shock high point of the film, when Annie tries to burn an old photo album that she found in the attic. She discovers, to her horror, that members of the secret satanic cult were present at all stages of her life. But the book won’t burn when she tosses it into the fireplace. She forces Steve to do it, using lighter fluid. It’s at that point – the most brilliant shock in the film – that I think Aster loses control of the story.
But still, it was a fun thrill ride most of the way.