Hereditary Review: Family is the Greatest Horror of All

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Hereditary Review: Family is the Greatest Horror of All

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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ri Aster’s unsettling Hereditary, this year’s second horror film offering after A Quiet Place, is likely to join the ranks of films credited with reinvigorating the camp-horror genre for many reasons.

Like Get Out, the film centres around the Machiavellian escapades of a dysfunctional white family (and in a delicious meta-tribute, has a character yelling “Get Out”). Hereditary also exploits the film’s eerie silence and unanticipated sound (especially the “klokk” sound of Charlie, the Graham daughter) to keep both its protagonists and audience willfully vigilant, à la A Quiet Place. And similar to It Follows and It Comes At Night, this movie too reimagines the usual tropes of the “evil spirit” and focuses on the horror within.

But Hereditary’s most inventive stroke is that it has the greatest horror villain of all time: family inheritance. It takes the saying “skeletons in the closet” – or, attic – literally.

By default, horror films derive their terror from the helplessness of their protagonists. But their powerlessness feel glaringly manufactured because it is caused by external factors – a possession, a haunted house, an evil spirit looking for vengeance, a nosy ghost. In these films, the protagonists don’t start off powerless and the audience is thus witness to their descent into chaos.

Hereditary turns the tables on this very structure of horror films by making the helplessness of its protagonists their legacy; to them, it’s hereditary. Naturally, there’s no start or end to the familial curses inflicted on the Graham family. Instead, the members of the Graham family – Annie (a terrific Toni Collette), Steve, their 13-year-old daughter Charlie, and teenage son Peter – have always been leading their lives as mere pawns of the fate that awaits them.

The odds stacked against the Grahams are heightened after the death of Annie’s mother Ellen, family matriarch and the mysterious leader of a demonic cult.

The film starts off well in the middle of the family’s misery with a breathtaking first frame. In a long shot, the camera focuses on a treehouse from inside a window and then slowly moves around an empty room to highlight its miniature version. It then zooms into a bedroom inside the dollhouse, slowly juxtaposing it with the room’s enlarged, real-life version. The writing on the wall is clear: The residents of the house are no different from the inhabitants of the dollhouse brought to life by Annie, a miniature artist. Neither the reel-life nor real-life props are, or ever were, in control.

The odds stacked against the Grahams are heightened after the death of Annie’s mother Ellen, family matriarch and the mysterious leader of a demonic cult. Her death also sets in motion a series of tragic events. The film then becomes a meditation on family hand-me-downs like grief, trauma, and mental illness juxtaposing it with supernatural elements like demonic possession and gory self-destruction. Hereditary cleverly tries to ask: Is there a difference between these family heirlooms?

At the heart of Hereditary is the horrible thought – just like the rest of us, the Grahams didn’t get to choose their families. They are products of personal histories, preferences, dreams, and circumstances that they had no control over. Their twisted family inheritance is not a gift they can afford to challenge.

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On one hand, the film implies that she has always known about her evil experiments but looked the other way. On the other, it affords her the privilege of being the grief-stricken victim.

Image Credits: Polygon

As a result, Hereditary also comes with its own set of familial horrors, especially the omnipresence of patriarchy, even in hell. There’s the tomboyish Charlie (cursed with a boy’s name), who could’ve been the film’s main protagonist instead becomes a victim due to her gender (“Grandma wanted me to be a boy” she exclaims in the beginning of the film). Charlie exists only as a temporary placeholder sacrificed by both, her subconsciously willing mother to protect her brother, and her grandmother for the greater good.

The film also deftly handles the ambiguous complicity of Annie in the proceedings. On one hand, the film implies that she has always known about her mother’s evil experiments but looked the other way. On the other, it affords her the privilege of being the grief-stricken victim.

In doing so, Hereditary transcends a horror film’s obligation to be jumpscare-induced frightening to being nightmarishly disturbing: It is as much a film about a family resisting its cold-blooded legacy, as one combating the cliched legacy of its genre. Hereditary relies on the visceral terror that accompanies the realisation that the Grahams and their screwed-up destinies could mirror any of our lives. After all, we’re also born into families capable of destroying us with their whims.

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