If you’ll remember, going waaaaay back to February of 2018, one of the scariest movies EVER was released. I’m talking about Veronica, the Spanish language movie about the cost of freeing malevolent entities via the old Ouija board. I found it to be not only hackneyed and cliche, but also not scary at all – click the link to read my review. Admittedly, I’m a horror movie fan and I’ve sat through some great horror, and the appreciation of horror (and what we find scary in general) is subjective. So I’m not slamming people who genuinely did find Veronica scary, more the idiots who make up clickbait headlines to promote either product, their website, or themselves. Hereditary arrived with such a campaign.
Neither of the trailers I’d seen imbued me with a sense that Hereditary was going to be anything other than the same Emperor’s New Clothes nonsense as with Victoria, but I did feel some weight behind it with the casting of Toni Collette (The 6th Sense), an actress who – even though I wouldn’t call myself a “fan” – is a rock solid performer, so when The Babadook started appearing in comparative sub headlines, it didn’t seem like a bad comparison to make – and if a movie is released by A24, chances are it’s going to be, at the very least, watchable. While I didn’t review Jennifer Kent’s 2014 release at the time, I can tell you know that I enjoyed it quite a bit. But there wasn’t anything about the trailers for Hereditary that seemed connected to The Babadook and you can’t count atmosphere, since that should be in every horror movie. Having seen both movies now, I can say that the theme of how grief can sometimes affect the way we see the world is indeed a connector, but there the differences end – while both movies provide the audience with the cinematic equivalent of The Unreliable Narrator, Hereditary chooses a more literal path towards its ending than does The Babadook.
In the movie, Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, a talented artist of minatures, and wife and mother within a middle class family. She’s recently lost her own mother. who was clearly a massive influence in her life – exactly how massive is revealed a grief-management encounter group – and it has taken its toll on her already fragile psyche. The Grahams live in a large Craftsman style home, and count among their number Dad Steve (a mostly pointless role, played by Gabriel Byrne), high school senior Peter, and middle school daughter Charlie. In screenplay terms, the inciting incident is arguably the off screen death of Annie’s mother as it sets the entire plot into motion. As the story pushes on in Act 1, it begins to focus on Charlie, a strange-looking child, with even stranger behaviour, and then sometime around the middle of Act 2 (in a brutally tragic scene), the story is compelled to focus on Peter. Ann Dowd (True Detective season 1, and my favourite Law & Order episode, Pro Se) plays someone whom Annie strikes up an uneasy friendship with, another character who becomes a focal point, especially in the third act.
So ok, that didn’t really tell you much of the plot, but that’s going to be for you to discover for yourself. Suffice it to say this is a black magic plot (to use a basic term), and I’ve gotten a lot of mileage from such movies recently, including A Dark Song, The Witch, and Pyewacket, so if nothing else you can see where my interests lie. And of the ones I just mentioned, it mostly resembled A Dark Song, especially with its almost-out-of-nowhere final scene. I appreciated the ending in both movies, but clearly not everyone else did. In terms of overall story influence, you could say that there’s more than a little sprinkling of Rosemary’s Baby and Ordinary People here too, and a reveal scene (not the ending) reminiscent of the magnificent Angel Heart, but I found this to be a nice reward after sitting through a movie that takes way too long to get there. Not exactly Easter eggs, but close enough for me.
And here’s where Hereditary and A Dark Song share another trait – they both use the brute force of repetition to extend the story longer than it needs to be. In A Dark Song, we get the point midway through the movie: the ritual is long and tough, but we keep seeing scenes that make the same point. In Hereditary, it’s not quite the same, but there are way too many scenes that don’t tell us anything more than what we’ve already seen, and it felt like they existed simply to reinforce prior plot points. In addition to this, there are two characters who ultimately feel extraneous to the plot. One is Dad, and for anyone who’s already watched the movie, you might be surprised to hear me say Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is the other, given that she’s by far the most interesting, and not just physically. On that note, I spent much of the movie trying to think of who she reminded of me, and it finally struck me towards the end of the movie: the kids from The Brood. There’s no actual resemblance to Cronenberg’s creatures, I’m just saying my mind made that association.
So why is such a compelling character unnecessary? Take three glasses of water the same size, A.B, and C. A is full, B and C are empty. You’re told to fill C, but instead of doing that, you fill B, then use that to fill C. Why would you do that? B is filler, and has no effect on the final goal, you just wasted time accomplishing it. Charlie is glass B, and it’s unfortunate. Certainly in terms of story you can’t get to that ending without Charlie, but in terms of plot, Charlie could be excised completely, and with a little retooling of the story, the movie would have been leaner. This argument is exacerbated by the performance of Alex Wolff as Peter. I expected a cliched, rebellious, asshole teen son, but I was surprised that he turned out to be a well-adjusted teen who seemed authentic, and affecting. This is the kind of writing in horror that elevates a movie above its peers. I made a similar comment in my Pyewacket review.
The movie’s major theme is the negative effect of grief, and Toni Collette gives a great performance, although it gets a little unrestrained towards the end. A bit like the story itself, really, and this was its major flaw, which is too bad because I did like everything else. It’s one of those movies that doesn’t know when to end, stretching scenes beyond a natural length, revisiting locations and plot points with the accumulating effect of putting the brakes on the narrative. But then, you have that ending, and it almost makes up for the lack of direction in the later scenes.
And what an ending it is – I love endings that seemingly come from nowhere. This one doesn’t because it’s telegraphed earlier, but how it ends was wonderful, I thought. One of the greatest themes of horror is the destruction of an innocent life – it’s a strong theme, and exists in the best horror fiction. What is worse (or better, contextually) than watching someone you like unable to prevent – sometimes unable to even see – their inexorable doom? But the ending, specifically the end reveal, is where I thought the movie made Charlie’s arc completely redundant, so it too isn’t without its flaws but it totally worked for me. The execution takes you by surprise, because like The Witch and A Dark Song it’s so wildly different than the preceding movie. Totally worked for me, but I could see how some viewers would hate it.
© Andrew Hope, 2018
Links to other movies mentioned here