A familiar pattern for a certain type of indie horror – arguably, all the way back to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – is to present a protagonist who seems to be surrounded by the literal trappings of gothic horror, with heavy depressions of the melodrama pedal, only for it to emerge that they are actually mentally or spiritually disordered and what the film is presenting is their skewed image of the world. There are readings of The Innocents and The Haunting (or Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Candyman and The Babadook), for instance, in which the neurotic heroines of the films are only imagining supernatural events and are themselves the main monsters of the movies – though most often the door is left open a crack to allow for the possibility that malign and magic forces are involved.
Hereditary, a first feature from writer-director Ari Aster, is almost the mirror image of that approach. After a coup de theatre tracking shot through an artist’s workshop where doll’s house-like autobiographical scenes are being constructed to find living people inside a seemingly tiny model, Hereditary feels at the outset like a study in grief and family dysfunction built around Toni Collette giving the sort of standout performance of a woman on the verge of collapse on a par with Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. However, as the heroine’s life spins out of control it becomes more and more likely that she actually is being affected by a long-in-the-making evil plan hatched by a mother who wasn’t just a difficult and demanding woman but high priestess of a witch cult devoted to Paimon, ‘one of the five kings of Hell’. As always, the question really isn’t whether all this is really happening – is mental instability a metaphor for witchiness, or vice versa? – but how scary is it? The answer: a lot. Early responses suggest that this is one of those horror films whose commercial chances have been inhibited rather than boosted by great reviews – it’s not just a grueling experience, but one many audiences will find unusefully upsetting rather than constructively terrifying. It’s anchored by Collette’s performance as Annie Graham, who is both mother and daughter, at once wife and breadwinner (so far as we see), and committed to exploring her home and her life in miniature only to find it spinning out of control.
After delivering an ambiguous eulogy at the funeral of her mother Ellen, annie tries to get on with her life – finishing a series of models chronicling Ellen’s last days in a hospice – as hints are dropped about the matriarch’s attempted interference in her daughter’s home life. In deep backstory, Annie has kept her now-teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) out of Ellen’s clutches but been too exhausted to prevent her sinking her hooks into her odd younger grandchild Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who has a curious tongue-click mannerism (later used for creepy effect) and is perhaps on the autistic spectrum or perhaps sensibly shut down to emotional influence to avoid being a battleground for mother and grandmother. Steve (Gabriel Byrne), Annie’s husband, is intriguingly an innocent bystander in this situation – casting Byrne, whose horror film CV runs to saints or demons, in the saturnine John Cassavetes role, is a canny bit of misdirection. Attention shifts from Annie to her children, with an escalation of misfortunes based on misunderstandings and malign fate adding to Annie’s plateful of horrors – a Final Destination chain of events involving a teen party, chopped walnuts, drunk driving, an animal on the road, a telegraph pole and an appallingly credible instance of numbed cowardice lead to yet another Graham family catastrophe. In a stratagem oddly reminiscent of the ‘frank and beans’ gag from There’s Something About Mary, a sequence is built around a painful physical circumstance kept discreetly offscreen and left to the imagination … only for the punchline to show you something you really don’t want to look at for long seconds on screen.
Deeper in grief and following her daughter into near-catatonia, Annie is befriended by Joan (Ann Dowd) – who has seen her at a self-help meeting – and keeps showing up suspiciously, eventually prodding Annie to resort to spiritualism to gain some closure. Here, Aster starts playing a more Rosemary’s Baby-ish game, with hints (an embroidered doormat) and clues (a family album) that Joan may have been connected with Ellen. Annie hectors her family, who have their own guilts to nurture, into a ritual-cum-séance … and the trap starts closing, as the house becomes more and more haunted, and the real nature of Ellen’s witchiness becomes apparent. In its storyline, Hereditary draws on many touchstones of horror – not just the big name movies cited in reviews (‘this generation’s Exorcist’ – which is probably misleading) but plenty of 1970s TV movies (anything with robes and chanting and a final reveal that all the character actors who seemed so friendly are in the coven) and gialli (the alternate title for All the Colours of the Dark is apt – They’re Coming to Get You). Collette is outstanding in what will become a signature performance, and Shapiro goes head to head with Millicent Simmonds from A Quiet Place for the title of Best Young Female Horror Newcomer 2018.