In theory it ought to be possible to respond to a film without taking into account to the critical reaction to it, but once you are aware of that reaction and have seen it pasted on the sides of buses, there’s not much you can do about that: it’s already in you.
But it does worry me a little that, had I seen Hereditary at some festival or other without being told in advance that it was ‘this generation’s Exorcist‘ etc. etc. I might have been as blown away as so many critics evidently were. I might even have called it ‘this generation’s Exorcist‘.*
Instead, viewing it after the fact in the Curzon Soho, I find myself in the position of naysayer. It’s so unfair, because there is such a lot to admire in Hereditary. It’s a very good horror film – just not a great one.
In fact there has been a sort of ‘backlash’. I’ve seen some indifferent-to-poor reviews. Richard Madeley, on Radio 2, called it ‘awful’. He didn’t go into detail; it was one of his passing remarks. But although I do not concur, still it strikes me that a great horror film, as this has been held up to be – in the same league as Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining and, er, Paranormal Activity (which the Mail on Sunday critic at least seems to believe is a timeless classic) – needs a basic simplicity to it. You ought to be able to sum it up in a short sentence: demon possesses little girl, woman has devil’s baby, mad axeman terrorises wife and child in remote location.
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be further complications (eg the supernatural elements of The Shining) but there does need to be this fundamental situation. The director of Hereditary, Ari Aster, has said that it is ‘essentially about grief and trauma’, which is a single short sentence that doesn’t really describe the film but does point to its one big flaw – that it isn’t ‘essentially’ about anything. That is, it’s about all sorts of things but they don’t quite cohere into an ‘essence’.
So it starts out as one kind of horror film, the spooky and ambiguous kind, successfully generating an atmosphere of dread and playing familial tensions off against supernatural ones with considerable skill. Annie (Toni Collette) is an artist specialising in miniatures who loses first her mother (not such a big deal since it seems she was some kind of monster) and then her young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro).
This last is a big deal, and the particular nature of her death – she was decapitated in a grotesque accident while being driven to hospital by her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) – does nothing to soften the blow.
Both son and mother are then both traumatised, and haunted by the dead girl, who was an awkward, sullen and discomfiting presence even when alive, and doesn’t seem to have gotten any more winning in death. In the case of Peter the haunting might be a manifestation of guilt; in Annie’s case it is all too willingly embraced, as – introduced by a new acquaintance to a seemingly foolproof method of getting in touch with the dear departed – she starts to actively encourage her daughter’s reappearance.
This last plays on an interesting tension between our desire to believe in the life hereafter and our terror of supernatural manifestations. Unfortunately the tension dissipates when Plot lands in the midst of it all with an audible clunk.
Because it seems that Annie’s mother was part of some kind of devilish conspiracy and has sold her granddaughter’s and then (after she was apparently deemed unsuitable), her grandson’s body to a devil called Paimon (Who? Well, yes, you may well ask). All the mysterious happenings that have been happening are mere preludes to Paimon taking up residence in Peter’s body.
The film’s transition from eerily suggestive haunting to actual Satanic conspiracy is an awkward one. It is largely accomplished via a book discovered in Annie’s mother’s effects, Notes On Spiritualism. This turns up in early scene, wherein Annie notes an ominous inscription to her from Mom but returns it to its cardboard box unread. Somehow, we have the feeling she will be returning to it later on, and so she does – conveniently it explains everything, or at least gives us as much of an explanation as we ever get.
Now we are reminded of Rosemary’s Baby, which is a shame as it only makes us remember how well that plot was managed in comparison. In this case plot, rather than provide a fundamental structure for the film to fall back on, is an oddly disruptive influence. The film, without exactly going off the rails, goes a bit flat. The death of Annie’s husband (Gabriel Byrne) – he bursts into flames and is consumed in seconds when an attempt to burn another book backfires – is close to risible, especially as the sudden violence of his fate seems bizarrely inappropriate for such an ineffectual character.
At the end the focus of the film shifts rather too abruptly from Annie to Peter, leaving Annie to float around the house like a spectre for some reason while Peter gets possessed. Eventually she garrottes her own head off in mid-air – an undeniably impressive flourish that still looks a bit too much like an attempt to distract the audience from the fact that the horror has now come adrift from its emotional underpinnings.
The last scene has Peter surrounded by naked worshipers who have turned up out of nowhere (along with a few headless corpses) to prostrate themselves at his feet. He looks bemused. Is he now Paimon and if so what does this mean for the world? Since we’ve only just been introduced, Paimon fails to inspire us with unadulterated terror, leaving us – or at least, me – casting around for other explanations. Could this be the fantasy of a young man who has gone in insane and killed his family? But the fact that he has only just displaced Annie as the film’s emotional centre means that this interpretation doesn’t quite take.
Similarly, we can see this last scene as the culmination of a process by which Peter has been ‘demonised’ by his mother, who has blamed him for his daughter’s death – but anxiety over whether Annie is a Bad Mother (a familiar theme in recent horror films like 2014’s The Babadook and 2016’s Under The Shadow) is effectively neutralised by the revelation that hers was unambiguously the Worst Mom Ever.
The film starts off by playing, very effectively, on nebulous fears about the vulnerability of the family unit but ends by suggesting exactly the opposite: that the family, far from being vulnerable, could be some kind of unstoppable destructive machine, like fate. I find these positions difficult to reconcile and so does the film.
In the end I kept thinking of Annie working away at her painstaking miniatures. Hereditary is like that. Individual scenes are brought to life brilliantly through fine performances (notably Collette’s) and effective touches like the exterior shots of day turning suddenly to night, as if a switch has been flicked, or the use of a certain disturbing sound that Charlie habitually makes with her mouth and continues to produce after her death. The photography by Pawel Pogorzelski is exemplary (though I wasn’t quite so sure about Colin Stetson’s score, whose muted, would-be menacing pulses sometimes just made me think that someone somewhere must be having a big old party**).
But underneath this confident surface there’s a structural flaw that means the film does not, after all, take its place among the greats (though the extent to which it references them suggests that it wants to).
Genre is only a framework. Most of its ‘rules’ can be broken as long as that framework still holds, but here it doesn’t quite. The truth is that this isn’t a bad film. It’s really a remarkable debut, and Aster can be proud of it. But it ought to come as a relief to him that he hasn’t perfected the art of the motion picture on his first try – there is still somewhere for him to go. The critics may have lost their heads but let’s hope he keeps his.
* I’m kidding. I would never have said that.
** Possibly the Satanists.