No matter how prepared you are for it, no matter how expected it has been, nobody can truly know how they will react to a death, especially when the relationship has already been difficult. For much of her adult life, Annie Graham has been estranged from Ellen Taper Leigh, though as she succumbed to illness Annie moved her dying mother into her home to help care for her.
An artist whose exhibitions are of extraordinarily detailed miniatures of locations from her life, the death of her mother is no different, her hospital room and deathbed recreated with the same obsessive perfectionism which is the mark of someone who must control every part of this aspect of their life to make up for the lack of control they feel elsewhere.
Her husband Steve distant, their teenage son Peter is understandably unaffected, largely having grown up without his grandmother present, but their thirteen-year-old daughter Charlie was Ellen’s favourite; an introverted child, isolated from her peers, Charlie asks a child’s questions about death and doesn’t understand the funeral service, though she is far from the only one fidgeting as the awkward ceremony proceeds.
Unable to comprehend the shape her grief should take and with her home dinner table an echo chamber of silence of past misdeeds unspoken, Annie does not tell Steve she is attending a support group where she tells strangers of the history of the severe mental illness which runs through her family which took her father and her brother from her, almost as though there is a curse over her family which has not yet run its course.
The feature debut of writer/director Ari Aster, Hereditary arrives on the back of the critical acclaim following its Sundance premiere, distributed by boutique label A24, known for such left-field material as A Ghost Story, It Comes at Night, The Monster, The Lobster and The Witch, low-key arthouse slow burners where the focus is on performance and ideas, often abstract, rather than the more common teen slasher horror favoured by the major studios.
That Aster knows his horror history is not in dispute, the opening shot of a fly buzzing around a window lifted from The Amityville Horror while later images recall the flickering lights of The Watcher in the Woods and the lurking horror in the attic of Hellraiser, while the plot contains elements of Rosemary’s Baby, Audrey Rose and Skeleton Key, most closely paralleling the Paranormal Activity sequence.
While that minimalist exercise in testing the patience of an audience while plundering their pockets was dragged out over six films, Hereditary is at least told over a single sitting, though even two hours is too long to support this depiction of a disintegrating family, absent the power and weight of The Exorcist despite the marketing campaign which claims this is of a similar stature, though it does observe the disregard of gravity of the possessed of Exorcist III.
What Aster also disregards is any internal logic: the emotional repercussions of an early twist, quite literally telegraphed, should also have equal practical implications such as major involvement of law enforcement, especially in the light of other facts which do not become apparent until later regarding what is euphemistically referred to as “the desecration” of Annie’s mother’s grave.
In this absence, what Hereditary is built upon is the performances, principally the eternally reliable and Toni Collette as Annie, grasping for understanding and meaning as she is overwhelmed by a grief which sideswipes her even as she is stabbed by the shards of her own broken past, and much of Annie echoes Collette’s previous roles in The Sixth Sense and The Night Listener.
Her models intricate to the point of intimacy, the doll’s house aesthetic is mirrored elsewhere in the framing of the film, a microcosm of madness as Annie’s mind tries to fill in the holes in her life, the presence of a loved one recently deceased promised to her by her new best friend from the therapy group, the manipulative and overbearing Joan (The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Ann Dowd) whose character description amounts to “clumsy and obvious plot device.”
In the crucial roles of the conflicted son and the challenging daughter, Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro carry the film as much as Collette as Peter and Charlie, while Mad to Be Normal‘s Gabriel Byrne is barely present as husband Steve; as peripheral as Jeremy Sisto’s father in The Other Side of the Door, Hereditary might have been stronger if it had depicted a single-parent family such as in The Babadook from which it has already lifted jump-cuts and the theme of a parent feeling they are failing their children.
Hereditary is not a bad film, simply a disappointing one, like the Graham family a victim of its lineage and the expectation placed upon it which it cannot fulfil but which clearly indicates Aster as an intelligent and capable creator who with more experience, and if not shanghaied by a major studio for a low-ambition project as has happened to so many of his peers, will hopefully justify the acclaim he has inherited before he has fully earned it.