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Let’s Scare Jenn to Death: Hereditary (2018)

Let’s Scare Jenn to Death: Hereditary (2018)

Introduction

(By Guest Writer James Olchak)

Good evening, Scare-a-teers! Here we are again, with “Let’s scare Jenn to Death,” our ongoing project in using grisly, gory horror movies to scare our internet pal Jenn to death. At this point we’ve seen all manner of ghosts, deranged slashers, otherworldly horrors, revenge zombies, and religious people. And Jenn is still not dead! In fact, she may actually be growing more resistant to the rumbling dread and shrieking shock of our finely tuned horror machine. Man, can anything get through Jenn’s scare-proof skin?

Well, I think we’ve got a really good shot, this time. The armor-piercing bullet in this episodes fear-gun is Hereditary (2018), directed by Ari Aster, in his feature film debut. When I saw this film, earlier this year, I knew Jenn had to see it, even if it was the last film she ever saw. Not only does it deal with Jenn’s least favorite horror themes (possession, supernatural evil, demon children, marriage), it stars one of her favorite actresses, Toni Collette, whom I was (prior to this film) unfamiliar with. I may not be able to praise this film enough, though I aim to try. It’s a chilling, high-concept, precisely wrought horror movie, perfect for the ubiquitous creeping dread of the twenty-teens. Let’s start the deep dive, shall we, kiddies?

Overview: Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary is a story about the slow disintegration of the Graham family: methodical diorama artist Annie (Toni Collette), business husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), slacker teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and emotionally distant, creative daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro). They live in a spacious cabin-like house in Salt Lake City, Utah, under a constant pallor of dour fog. As we meet the Grahams, they’re preparing to attend the funeral of Annie’s mother, Ellen, who has recently died after a long stay in hospice.

While the family is appropriately mournful about Ellen’s death, Charlie, in particular, is nonplussed by her Gran’s death, pointedly asking Annie “who will take care of me, now?”

Charlie

Charlie is an odd child, always a suspicious thing to be in a horror movie.

She never cried, even as a baby. She sleeps in her treehouse in the frigid Utah autumn; she clucks her tongue as an unsettling vocal tic; she roams the family’s property in bare feet (catching a glimpse of the ghost of her gran sitting outside in a ring of fire); and she cobbles together unsettling figurines from odds and ends, an ersatz mimicry of her mother’s painstakingly constructed dioramas. She keeps a notebook full of twisted portraits of her family and acquaintances and snips the heads off dead pigeons to use as art supplies.

(Oh let’s enjoy Jenn’s reaction to said pigeon decapitation by the way:)

Charlie is weeeiiird.

Annie gives a blasé eulogy to the surprisingly large attendance of her mother’s funeral. Annie and her mother had a toxic, sporadic relationship. Ellen was domineering and secretive, Annie says, clearly resenting the past couple years taking care of the woman as dementia further strained whatever bond they might have had. Charlie, meanwhile, takes in the funeral with insect-like disinterest, sketching deranged pictures in her notebook during the eulogy and munching on a chocolate bar during the reception: “That doesn’t have nuts, does it?” chides her father–neither he nor Annie have brought an Epipen, despite Charlie’s severe nut allergy.

Back home, Annie tries to subsume her grief (really, her conspicuous lack of grief) in her art, dispassionately constructing scenes of heartbreak from her life, including a depiction of her mother in hospice. Steve assures her that she’ll feel ‘whatever she’s supposed to’ regarding her mother’s death.

 

Steve

Steve gets short shrift in Hereditary, and that’s unfortunate. I found out well after seeing the film that Steve is a therapist, and there are deleted scenes in which he takes a more proactive approach toward trying to help his family heal, including a scene in which Peter’s grief is more explicit, mirroring Annie’s wailing anguish. But that’s not really the Steve we see in this cut of the film, in which he’s portrayed like a disinterested outsider, for the most part, rolling his eyes at Annie’s supposed delusions (as close as the movie gets to lame narrative tropes, the ‘Doubting Thomas’ character), and only showing emotion when it comes to protecting his only surviving child. I suspect that the bulk of Steve’s character was cut for both time and for the fact that he, as someone unrelated to Ellen Leigh by blood, that his story kind of isn’t relevant. Sorry Steve.

Unconvinced, Annie secretly attends a grief support group, where she boils over with her family’s secret failings and tragedies. Her “psychotically depressed” father committed suicide, as did her schizophrenic older brother, convinced that some force was trying to “put people inside of” him. Estranged from her mother for a time, Annie wouldn’t let the domineering woman meet her first child, Peter, but later relented with Charlie, an action she helplessly describes as ‘giving Charlie to her.’ Meanwhile, Steve is informed that Ellen’s grave has been desecrated, a gruesome detail he keeps from his wife.

Gabriel Byrne makes this sort of face throughout the movie.

Suffocating under the weight of his tragedy-soaked home life, Peter plans an outing to a local party where he can hopefully pursue a normal, non-ominous relationship with Bridget, a girl from his school. Caught in a lie regarding the venue (portraying it as a school event, not a wanton teen kegger), Annie forces a reluctant Charlie to accompany him. It is the last time Annie will see her daughter’s face.

You can tell this is going to be a fun outing.

Peter quickly abandons his sister at the party to smoke weed with his dream girl. Charlie takes solace in a chocolate cake and is quickly overcome by anaphylactic shock (“That doesn’t have nuts, does it?” Well…). Suffice to say, Peter didn’t bring an Epipen, nor is there one in the car. So, Peter, now high, makes a terrible decision. Rather than embarrass himself by calling authority figures to the scene of the party, he races to get his sister to a hospital, driving at unsafe speeds while impaired down bleak desert highways. Charlie, in agony and struggling to breathe, sticks her head out of the rear window just as Peter swerves to avoid a dead animal in the road…

KTHUNK

There’s no way to adequately describe how wrenching Charlie’s sudden decapitation is.

Seeing Hereditary in a full theater of appreciative movie fans was a moment that puts lie to the contention that the movie experience is better at home, with a big-screen TV. It may happen one time out of a hundred, but the alchemy of everyone in the theater feeling exactly the same gut punch you did is transcendent. It’s spontaneous collective empathy, a phenomena that could cure fascism forever.

Peter, staring straight ahead, refusing to glance in the rearview mirror, quietly steels himself to make a terrible decision. He turns around and drives home. He parks the car in the driveway. He walks past his parent’s room (“Oh, good, they’re back”). He lies down on his bed and stares.

(Here is a good moment to enjoy Jenn’s reaction to the accident and Peter’s ensuing decision:)

He’s still staring, the next morning, when Annie goes outside to drive into town for art supplies, finding the headless body of her daughter in the backseat of the family car. The audience doesn’t see it, just as they didn’t see the decapitation. They just hear Annie, screaming, choking, sobbing in disbelief, while we stare into the void of Peter’s eyes. It’s brutal. Even a quick shot of Charlie’s abandoned, mangled head, baking in the sun, crawling with ants is less brutal than Annie’s crushing grief.

Charlie’s head isn’t found. Charlie is buried.

The Graham family’s grief is all-enveloping. Annie is at turns wracked by grief, then guilt, then anger, blaming Peter for Charlie’s death, while allowing herself a “neutral view” of the accident, coldly crafting a diorama depicting the worst night of her young son’s life, and the last night of her daughter’s.

 

Not pictured: the Epipen that should have been sent with Peter to the party. Nice work, Annie, very meticulous.

Peter starts to come apart, both from the trauma he’s suffered, the weight of his guilt, and the inexplicable hallucinations he starts suffering. At one point he sees his own reflection smile wryly at him, at another, he wakes up and sees her spirit (before her head promptly falls off, turning into a soccer ball as it rolls towards him).

Peter

Peter is out of his depth throughout the film. Annie is driven, and she and Charlie are both artistically gifted. Steve is centered and practical. Peter is an aimless slacker. Peter is adrift in a sea of trauma. He has neither the force of personality to fortify himself against the forces tearing at him, nor a support system that could help him do so. Aside from his distant, stern father and his cutting, histrionic mother, Peter’s only allies are his equally wastoid stoner friends. In a darkly pathetic scene, Peter has an anxiety attack (unable to breathe, an echo of Charlie’s final minutes) while he and his friends smoke weed under the school bleachers–he pleads for one of them to hold his hand as they obliviously continue their insipid conversation. Peter is alone, and once his family support fails completely, he regresses into self-annihilation.

Meanwhile, Annie latches onto a friend from the grief counseling support group, an older woman named Joan, whose grandchild supposedly drowned in an accident. We learn more regarding Annie’s fears of mental illness, as she confides in Joan that during a ‘sleepwalking’ episode, Annie once drenched herself, Peter and Charlie in paint thinner, and ‘woke up’ holding a lit match. Joan is a sympathetic, but not stabilizing influence on Annie, however, and introduces her to occult rituals ostensibly intended to let Annie contact Charlie.

via GIPHY

The skeptical Annie does her best to not get drawn into Joan’s woo-woo spiritualism, but after seeing Joan’s spectral “grandchild” write a message on a small chalkboard, she takes the incantation and candle Joan offers. After suffering a vivid nightmare wherein she confesses to Peter that she never wanted to be his mother, and attempted to kill him through pre-natal neglect (followed by a reenactment of the paint thinner/match episode), Annie decides to attempt a séance.

Toni Collette makes a wide variety of pained faces throughout the film.

Secretly reading the incantation in the bathroom of her home, she tries to recruit Steve and Peter into the proceedings, but Steve is intractable and Peter is reluctant. This whole sequence is excruciating, as Steve’s steadfast refusal to entertain Annie’s notions brings the film guttering not to a halt, but to a frustrating bottleneck. With Steve’s more empathetic scenes on the cutting room floor, he begins to seem like kind of a recalcitrant dick, refusing any of his wife’s requests, no matter how innocuous. Once Annie gets the players in place (At one point dragging a f***ing table to the two men who refuse to step closer to it), the expected supernatural phenomena occurs, with flying glassware and Annie speaking in Charlie’s voice, but it’s not the sullen, monosyllabic Charlie the audience met earlier. This “Charlie” is confused and scared, (crying?), and seems to not know who her family is. Steve throws water on Annie, breaking the trance (or possession, or what-have-you), but Annie (after finding new disturbing drawings in Charlie’s sketchbook) becomes convinced that Charlie’s spirit intends to hurt Peter. She attempts to burn the sketchbook, believing it to be what keeps Charlie anchored to the realm of the living, but she catches flame as the book does, and quickly douses it. Returning to Joan’s apartment for advice, she finds Joan absent, but finds photographs and other evidence that Joan and Annie’s mother Ellen were friends, and both seemed to be involved in occult activity regarding a demon called “Paimon.”

Joan, meanwhile, has relocated to the street outside Peter’s school. While Peter attempts to eat lunch (by himself, outside), Joan screams at him from across the street, saying “I expel you!” This proves to be the start of some bad stuff for Peter, as upon returning to class, he’s disturbed by his own smirking reflection…

…and suffers a bizarre seizure. First, his arm locks painfully upright, then his face swells and twists grotesquely, and his throat closes up before he smashes his face into his desk (again, a ghoulish pantomime of Charlie’s last moments). A terrified (but sedated) Peter is picked up from the ER by his father, who breaks into tears driving him home, while the spirit of Ellen Leigh watches from the roadside. Annie, meanwhile, is putting the pieces together. Investigating her attic, she finds the headless corpse of her mother, under a blood-scrawled symbol of Paimon.

Paimon

This is a symbol that has recurred multiple times throughout the film, on Annie and Ellen’s necklaces, on the utility pole that Charlie struck, and so on. While Paimon is a “real” (historically described) Goetic demon, whose traits, methods of summoning, and skills were detailed in the Lesser Key of Solomon, and many of those details were used in Hereditary (from the benefits he can provide summoners, his desire for a male body to inhabit, even the illustration where he’s depicted without shoes), it’s worth noting that the “Symbol of Paimon” depicted in the film is fake, that is, not historically accurate.

Paimon’s symbol in Hereditary

Paimon’s symbol from the Ars Goetia

I love things like this. Did the producers alter Paimon’s symbol to be…more respectful to “real” Paimon worshippers? Were they afraid of summoning a real demon? Did they not realize the Ars Goetia is public domain? What was the thinking here, other than a tacit acceptance of Paimon as a real metaphysical threat? It’s kind of like if the makers of the Exorcist films changed the name of Pazuzu To Pazaza to avoid getting sued by Pandemonium’s legal team.

Anyway, Annie, more frenzied than ever, pleads with Steve to look at the evidence she’s discovered regarding the supernatural threat to all of them, which I will remind you, includes a headless corpse in the attic. Steve has had enough of Annie’s sudden mania for the supernatural, and doubles down on his “it’s all in your head” rebuttal, even after seeing the attic corpse which he now accuses Annie of digging up herself (and, I guess carrying over her shoulder up those rickety fold-down attic ladder/stairs, despite Annie weighing less than one of Charlie’s figurines). Steve doesn’t call the cops, or an ambulance for his purportedly dangerously mentally ill wife (and remember, he’s a therapist), though. He just kinda follows her around, dismissing her concerns, and refusing yet another simple request, to throw Charlie’s book into the fire (A step which Annie believes will result in her death, but free both Charlie and the surviving Grahams from the terror set upon them). Steve refuses, because that’s all Steve does in the film. Annie finally does so herself, and unexpectedly, it’s Steve who bursts into flames, burning to a cinder as the shimmering blue light of possession brings an end to all of Annie’s concerns.

(Here is Jenn reacting to a myriad of creepy things involving Annie:)

Annie

Annie (and Toni Collette’s perfectly wrought performance) carries the movie up until this point. She’s glib, then vulnerable, cold, then hysterical, sympathetic, then cruel. There are simply too many brilliant moments with this character to possibly sum up, she is not only the most fully realized character in the film, she’s almost like a blueprint or microcosm of the story itself. Annie spends the narrative as a worm in a tacklebox, wriggling every way she can to find some relief, some escape from the inevitability of her fate and f*** all she just does not make it. Even once she feels like she’s put it all together, and she feels like escape is possible, she only moves from the box to the hook. The Grahams are doomed, and they were always doomed even before the film started.

What’s unfortunate is that Annie’s end comes at the expense of much of the concern we have for the Grahams. They’re all dead, now, save Peter, who has slept through his father’s explosive demise and wakes in the late evening to an eerily silent house. As he shakes off his sedation, the audience is treated to one of the best scares in the film, as Annie’s form can barely be discerned in the darkness of Peter’s room, clinging spider-like to the walls overlooking his bed. As Peter calls out to his family, Annie swims through the room’s darkness, fleeing the room to grab something she needed from the house’s piano.

(Let’s watch Jenn take in Annie on the ceiling:)

Investigating the strange noises downstairs, Peter finds Steve’s corpse, before unfamiliar nude figures begin creeping out of darkened corners and hiding places within the house. Annie leaps down from another high vantage point and begins chasing Peter, who manages to escape to the attic, pulling up the stairs and pleading with his mother to stop trying to smash into his refuge. It’s no good, though. The nude strangers are in the attic, too, and suddenly so is Annie, floating, glowering, sawing at her own neck with a piece of piano wire.

Peter leaps out of the attic window, landing in a flower patch. A silvery light engulfs him, and he gets up, unharmed. He clucks his tongue, once, and watches as his mother’s headless corpse floats into the open trapdoor to Charlie’s Treehouse. He follows it, finding more of the nude figures, now kneeling before him. His mother and grandmother (both headless) are also positioned prostrate before a life-size artist’s manikin, wielding a rod with a strangely positioned hand at its top, and topped with Charlie’s rotting, crowned head. As another crown is placed on Peter, Joan’s addresses him as Charlie, and tells him that he is Paimon, a King of Hell, and that he has been given a healthy male body, correcting the “earlier mistake.” He is now free to rule over them, his supplicants, who beseech him for boons of riches, command over other men, and “good familiars.” Hail Paimon!

Autopsy

So, first things first, Jenn. Did this one almost scare you to death, or what? I felt like your responses to other films we’ve watched this year suggested that Hereditary’s combination of demonic possession; shocking, sudden violence; and relentless, oppressive dread would tip you right into a casket. What say you?

This movie almost killed me. You are correct that it combined a bunch of things that scare me the most. It was also very well acted and filmed which makes it all the more scary.

Let’s start with the obvious. What I suspect was the moment we (we the audience, but also, I suspect you and I) realized that this movie was not going to unfold in a typical, predictable fashion: Charlie’s decapitation. Can I assume you were as shocked as I was? I’m not sure I’ve had such a visceral moment watching a film in a very long time. I don’t know if you even saw any of the trailers, but the suggestion that the film was going to lean on the “spooky kid” angle with Charlie was pretty strong. Killing her off 30 minutes in really took my feet out from under me.

Yes I was entirely not expecting that. I mean I knew it was looking bad with the nut allergy, but I thought she was going to be a major part of the entire movie so I figured it would just be a close call. And I definitely did not see the decapitation coming. I had not seen any trailers, and I was also told it was “just an interesting family drama” until the third act. I wasn’t expecting actual violence yet.

You’ve already seen my reaction above to the decapitation, but here it is again just for convenience:

There’s a doomy feeling of inevitability in Hereditary, from pretty much the first scene, as we zoom in on one of Annie’s dioramas to find it populated by Peter and Steve. The movie tells us right away that these characters may as well be dolls in a dollhouse, for all the agency they have. Does that hurt the film? I’ve seen a lot of movies, but I can’t remember another where none of the protagonists having any possible means of escaping their fate was an element. Normally, characters without agency are a sign of poor storytelling! How did this work? Were you resigned to the Graham’s fates, or did you hold on to belief that somehow it was going to work out in the last act, like so many other movies?

Well, these are good questions. I never thought things were going to turn out great, and once Charlie’s head got ripped off I kind of felt very unsure about what was going to happen overall, I didn’t trust the movie not to trick me again! So, although it seemed at various points that Annie was figuring it out and would fix it, I kind of thought well, even if she figures it out maybe she can’t fix it. Turns out she didn’t really figure it out anyway, eh? I don’t think it’s a sign of poor storytelling. I think poor storytelling is always having everything have a happy ending. Typically things seem to go to hell and that’s what happened here. What is hard to believe about that?

Also, I want to note that yes, I was on edge from the very first moment of this movie. The soundtrack and the dollhouse opening did that. I was ready for something awful to happen any moment, though still the decapitation was more than I was expecting. DID I MENTION CHARLIE’S DECAPITATION IS SHOCKING?

(Here is me about 5 minutes into the movie:)

It really is!

Hereditary seems to start from a premise that mental illness, (Ellen’s DID, Annie’s dad’s psychosis, her brother’s schizophrenia) is the threat to overcome, and once we hear about Annie’s dissociative fugue (where she nearly set herself and her children on fire), it’s pretty easy to consider that there are no demons in the story, it really is just sickness being passed down through Annie’s family line. Is the reveal that demons and witches are the culprits disappointing? Would this have been better as a purely psychological chiller?

Hmmmmm. I don’t think it’s disappointing. I think there’s no reason the two can’t both be present. Maybe the Paimon worshippers prey on mentally unwell people? Maybe their mental health is related to their alleged abilities – i.e. Annie thinks she’s a medium and always has been – maybe if we believe in such things it’s not surprising that they could be present in people who are also otherwise neurologically atypical.

The imagery in Hereditary, like Annie’s dioramas, is meticulously crafted. Even scenes that would seemingly be phoned in by a cinematographer, like the reception after Ellen’s funeral, are full of subtle indicators of ill portent. The fact that every adult in town that makes eye contact with Charlie immediately gives her a creepy smile is deffo off-putting, for example. Reading other people’s thoughts about the film online, there were plenty of little bits of foreshadowing that escaped me, so I’m looking forward to watching it again in about ten years, and seeing if I can catch some of what I missed. Were there any particularly affecting pieces of imagery you noticed?

Yes. The person who touched Ellen’s lips in the casket at the funeral. That first weird adult at the funeral who smiled at Charlie. The overall feel of their house was not comfortable but it’s hard to say exactly why. Probably the cinematography. It looked like a nice modern-ish-ly decorated home but it constantly scared the shit out of me. Too dark maybe? Rooms felt very empty even with people in them? There were a lot of uncovered windows? Those make me extremely nervous. I cannot have windows uncovered when it’s dark outside, I feel like scary things are staring in at me. Annie’s workshop made me constantly nervous after the first apparition of her mother. Their house felt like it had an animosity to me. The choice to show only Peter’s face and not Charlie’s body once the accident was over made that whole tortuous storyline even worse. The chopping the bird’s head off with scissors feels like foreshadowing for all the headless bodies that will show up later, right? The actress who played Charlie herself unnerved me from the very first time we saw her and through her entire life onscreen. What is with that tongue-clicking? The only time she seemed un-creepy was when she was in anaphylactic shock and needed Peter’s help. Then she just seemed like a normal little kid. Before that she was constantly terrifying to me. I think that made the decapitation more shocking too. I was starting to feel some empathy for her and then her head got ripped off. FFS. Annie speaking at her mother’s funeral was a little unnerving because they didn’t really show the people in the “audience” and because she made a sort of derisive comment about her mother’s “rituals”. That was some creepy foreshadowing.

I know someone who hates uncovered windows at night for the same reason. She had similar problems regarding Frank Creepshow, from the last film we covered. Anything floating outside that looks scary–I tried to explain that Frank Creepshow is a good spirit who never harms anyone, but she wasn’t having it. I read somewhere that there are lots of visible footprints throughout the Graham’s property and home, which also would have been great foreshadowing, if I had seen it!

Oh, I wish I had noticed that! That would definitely have been super unnerving! I mean maybe I did notice on some level. Geez, I kind of want to watch it again now but it was so scary how could I even?

A lot of times, in horror, the victims of the story’s violence are deserving of their dire fates, even if it’s just through the contrived “rules” of that particular film (like Jason Voorhees targeting promiscuous teens, because promiscuous teens are who let him drown, supposedly). Do the Grahams, any of the Grahams, deserve this?

I don’t think any of the Grahams deserve any of this. I mean, Ellen seems like she wasn’t great? But we don’t really see her alive. I don’t think Annie, Charlie, Peter, or Steve deserve any of this in a general sense. If I try to do your “rules” idea I guess… are we supposed to think they deserve any of it because Annie didn’t want to deal with her mom or listen to her nonsense? She finds that note that says something like “Darling Annie I’m so sorry I couldn’t teach you more” etc. I guess maybe? By that vague idea that she wouldn’t let her mom “get her claws” into her (as she says she did with Charlie)? But it’s hard to see the devil worshippers as “good” in any sense right? Like are we supposed to be angry that Annie didn’t let herself be made into a cult-member for a demon-worshipping group of decapitating creeps?  

I mean, it seems like the result would have been pretty much the same if she had? Like, being more of a part of her mother’s grand plan would…still have ended with Annie without a head, slumped over in front of a ghastly dummy, right? We get very little indication regarding what kind of benefits the worshippers of Paimon get, other than “spells to help bring Paimon into our world.” One of the things that kills me about movies like this is, like, when everybody in the treehouse gets off their knees and puts their clothes back on, what does the next day look like for them? For Peter?

Right, agreed. I mean it looks like Joanie had a “normal” life as what… a professor or something? A therapist FFS? I don’t even know. I don’t understand what these people do in their real, normal lives. Does Peter go back to school and have more success seducing that cool girl now because he’s a KING OF HELL?

I have to assume!

Let’s talk about Annie specifically. She’s the heart of the film, she gets most of the screen time, and although she’s wrong about what precisely her family is threatened by for most of the film, she’s the only one that ever gets an inkling as to how bad it is. She’s obviously the protagonist. Do you like Annie? Does she seem like a good person, or better, a kind person? Is it that she’s so damaged by her mother that she doesn’t have the tools to approach “normal” relationships with her children or husband? Or is she just kind of a prickly workaholic who is sorta…ambivalent about her kids?

I think she genuinely loves her kids. I think she might be prickly and even resentful of them, but I think she honestly loves them and loves Steve too. Look at her reaction when Charlie dies. She’s weeping and hysterical while Steve tries to comfort her, just saying “please I want to die.” Even when she blows up at Peter at the dinner table later she says “I know you’re sorry, I know it was an accident, I know you miss her”. I think I like her. I don’t really think I can fault any of her behaviors. I mean the sleepwalking and trying to set her kids on fire is unnerving but I don’t think we ever get a genuine explanation for that. Was that mental illness? Was it some creepy demon influence? I have no idea. I think she is a kind person who has things affecting her that she has no control over, and while she’s not perfect, I think she’s a sympathetic protagonist. I’m not sure how well I’d handle these events. Probably not so great.

I think you’re more sympathetic to Annie than I am. Like, I didn’t get the indication she was particularly close with Charlie or Peter, before Charlie’s death, and her grief felt like it was mostly fueled by the trauma of the discovery of Charlie’s body. I think her nightmare confession to Peter that she ‘never wanted to be his mother’ was the highest datapoint on her emotional honesty scale, and dinner speech gave me no indication that she took a single particle of responsibility for Charlie’s death, which really killed any sympathy I had for her. Like, by Annie’s calculations, Charlie’s death was 50% accident, and 50% what Peter did. Bitch why did you not send an Epipen with them. You are the adult. You are the parent. You were her mother.

Annie was super fuckin’ casual with her daughter’s life-threatening condition, and considering that she once drenched them in paint thinner and lit a match, I don’t think that was completely unintentional. I think that somewhere in her mind, Annie was still trying to “save” Charlie.

Still sort of disagree. I do think it’s unrealistic that they wouldn’t have sent her everywhere with an epipen. She was 13, not 5, she should have had one on her person all the time. But I don’t agree about Annie’s lack of care for her family. I think coming from a pretty traumatic background (remember, her dad and brother both died in extremely terrible ways) can make it unlikely that you process things normally on a day to day basis, and Annie’s life is not even very normal to start with, because her daughter is the creepiest child on earth.

One reason I feel like the film holds together as well as it does, despite the gonzo nature of its plot, is how important narrative elements echo from character to character, and scene to scene. Most overtly, the way Annie’s dioramas are her means to try and carve out some measure of control of her world, and Charlie’s figurines seem to echo her mother’s work, but in truth more accurately depict her own relationship with Ellen’s “rituals.” I found some less narratively important, but equally fun parallels between shots in the film and famous album covers:

Annie screaming and King Crimson’s Court of the Crimson King.

Steve burning up and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.

 

Peter’s bloodied face and Andrew W.K.’s I Get Wet.

Did you find any particularly affecting echoes between scenes in Hereditary?

Well the most obvious one which I felt smart for noticing after Charlie’s head got ripped off but then felt much more overt as more heads were removed from bodies was the theme of decapitation. I remember thinking “Oh, Charlie cut off the bird’s head and then her head was ripped off. That’s disturbing.” I didn’t personally notice anything else that seemed like a repetitive theme like the dioramas and Charlie’s figures, but maybe I would on a re-watch. Damn it, stop making me want to re-watch this movie!

If Hereditary’s critical and public reception can be considered controversial in any way, it usually focuses on the film’s ending. Not only are there people who would have preferred a significant reduction of the supernatural elements of the film (as we discussed) but there are both criticisms that claim the film’s ending is too pat, wrapped up in too neat a bow (Joan’s ADR narration at the end seemed tacked on to me), while others think the ending was too bizarre/left-fieldy. Which way does Jenn fall?

Hmmmm. I guess I disagree. I’ve heard that criticism from a couple of friends and it bothered me a little so I guess that’s not what I think. I mean first of all, to be clear, I am still Scully and I don’t actually believe any of this is or could ever be possible because I don’t believe in ghosts or demons. However, deciding to go along with the reality the movie sets up, where those things are real, I don’t really find the demon-worshippers getting what they want any less plausible than possession, demons, or seances either.

Cause of Death

Since you’ve stubbornly crawled back out of your grave (like Ellen!) in order to critique the film, how would you rate Hereditary (2018), using our five severed-Acadia-heads system to establish its levels of dread, shock, and horror?

Dread

Well, since I was immediately on edge and remained so for the duration, I would say 5 out of 5. Literally the soundtrack in the opening moment of the film made me upset and scared. So much dread.

Shock

If you can’t tell by my reactions throughout the film I was quite shocked literally dozens of times. Also 5 out of 5!

Horror

Also 5 out of 5! Have we found the perfect horror movie?

Here is an overview of how I handled the end of this movie (there’s a weird video artifact near the end, but I think it kind of adds something):

Epitaph

Finally, what will you remember most about a movie in which a little girl is beheaded by a telephone pole and it’s not the most horrific thing that happens in it?

I think, Annie on the ceiling in Peter’s room. Let’s enjoy that moment again:

Post Mortem

There are a couple films that work similar themes as Hereditary, and do it nearly as well, but the one that I felt the strongest thematic echoes from is The Omen (1976).

The Omen is a 1976 Richard Donner film (directed just two years before Donner directed Superman: The Motion Picture). It stars Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as the “parents” of a strange little boy who seems to be the center of a lot of awful happenings. Peck’s character, American diplomat Robert Thorn, slowly becomes convinced the boy he’s raising as his son is the Antichrist.

Obviously, a lot of the reason Charlie’s early death in Hereditary is so shocking is because of pop-culture fallout from The Omen, in which little Damien is the center of weird happenings throughout the picture, including the familiar-feeling scenes of adults who are way too happy to be in Damien’s presence, including a nanny who proves her devotion to him by committing a cheery suicide at his birthday party:

So, while earlier film The Exorcist (1973) laid the groundwork for all manner of films about fiendish children, including The Omen and Hereditary, I give the Omen the nod here. It’s not quite as well-loved as the Exorcist, but I think it’s been even more influential.

About The Author

Jenn Martinelli

Don't let Acadia tell you he's the boss. I'm the real boss.

6 Comments

  1. Acadia

    Poor Larry Bird. She didn’t deserve to go out like that!

    This was a good one. Well written, good interview. Tell Olchak that he could work here all the time if he gets tired of being a fur-trapper or whatever!

    Reply
  2. Mells Bells

    Excellent write up!! Since I’ll never see the movie because I am too scared I enjoyed reading about it instead. Thanks, Jenn! 🙂

    Reply
    • Jenn Martinelli

      You’re welcome! Scaredy-cat solidarity!

      Reply
  3. DAMEMEOW

    Great review! And as much as I loved the movie itself, I think I loved Jenn’s reaction to the movie more 🙂

    Reply
  4. Jackie Torrance

    Bless you for writing this, Jenn! As Mells said above, for scaredy cats who are too scared to watch this movie, it’s nice to read about it instead! 😂 Wonderful, through piece. Loved reading this!

    Reply

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