HEREDITARY. Abandon all hope
It starts something like this: Annie (the wonderful Toni Collette), a professional model builder, lives in a big, beautiful house with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and thirteen-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). We meet the whole family at the funeral of the doyen of the family, who passed away at the right age and was not particularly liked by anyone except her granddaughter. They all go home and pretty much go straight to their rooms to go about their business. At this point, you might think we already know which way it’s going to go – Grandma looked a bit ominous, unresolved family problems are clearly hinted at, and the wooden house is begging for some sort of apparition.
However, it so happens that we know nothing.
Once we realize that Hereditary is not going to be a horror about a family plagued by a restless spirit, the director will focus on Charlie. The girl is far from an average thirteen-year-old – she sleeps in a tree house, communicates with her family through drawings, collects strange objects and builds figurines from them, carries a severed bird’s head in her pocket. So maybe it will be a horror movie about a demon child?
Ari Aster is doing with his film – and consequently also with us – something not so much original as completely unheard of. Whenever Hereditary falls into specific plot lines, the director deliberately derails the film and forces it to look for a new path. His debut is, in effect, similar in parts to thousands of other titles, but as a whole unlike anything else.
However, this is not about confusing clues, known, for example, from the outstanding The Blackcoat’s Daugher by Oz Perkins, or about cleverly playing the narrative mechanisms that effectively built the horror in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows and Get out! by Jordan Peele. While Hereditary stems from the same new wave of American horror, it’s an even more sweeping and sassy film. If the creators of those horror films were simply ignoring the rules of the genre, then Aster contemptuously throws the horror manual into the fire; if Peele or Perkins showed great originality and a sense of genre matter, then Aster sets himself the goal of making a total horror, crossing intra-genre boundaries in a way that is impossible to fake. In one scene the director scares us with subtle nuances, in the other a severed, rotting head. However, everything is consistent, everything is in its place. And that’s what scares me the most.
In Hereditary, neither the ghost of a grandmother nor a mysterious girl make a monster. There are two monsters in Aster’s movie. The first is the narrative itself, with which the director, with premeditation and ghastly malice, prevents us from catching anything that would be familiar and tame. The further into the film, the more narrative madness there is. If at first reality and the characters’ imaginations are separated from each other, by the end everything is mixed in one hellish pot – editing cuts take us from night to day or from Annie’s model to reality. The way the story is told takes the form of a vortex in Hereditary that sucks everything into a hellish abyss.
The second monster is the family. It is so perverse that in most contemporary American horror films it is the family that is the source of comfort, and its consolidation allows evil to be defeated. In Aster, narrative flips are combined with a terrifying relay race – the mother passes the story to the daughter, the daughter to the son, etc. Each act of the film has a different hero, but the characters never work together, they function side by side, they create an extremely dysfunctional family, devoid of a core, and what a hence the chances.
The result is a horror film whose screenings should be preceded by a quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy. If you decide to watch Hereditary, you can give up all hope – Ari Aster’s debut will not make you jump in your chairs, but after the screening he will definitely come back to you like a never-healed wound. And you can be sure that he will choose the least opportune moment.