Hereditary falls squarely in the center of what I think is an exciting development in horror movies: horror that leans more towards the literary. Reviews of this movie had a lot of "Not since The Exorcist..." language which made me skeptical, along with my friend's text along the lines of "Have you heard the hype about this movie? People are saying it's traumatic." Well that was enough to sell me.
Hereditary very much reminded me of The Witch and It Comes at Night with some echoes of The Exorcist. I suppose I would consider The Exorcist literary horror, but it does lean more towards overt horror (ie, looking at horrifying and explicitly unpleasant things for long scenes.) The way this movie was filmed--as if the camera is lurking--and the excellent score reminded me of all three: unnerving drones, unpleasant prickly noises, indistinct sounds you can't quite pick out. With the exception of The Exorcist I generally don't find literary horror scary, but I do enjoy it.
What I found most horrifying in this movie wasn't the supernatural elements, which I doubted the existence of for maybe four-fifths of the movie. There's some indication in a very Rosemary's Baby way that the recently deceased mother of Annie (Toni Collette) was a witch. The narrative does feel like it's headed for supernatural elements, particularly in the way it focuses on Annie's profoundly creepy daughter Charlie. She's unnerving (amazingly well acted by Milly Shapiro), but I thought she was headed for either demonic possession or a diagnosis of psychopathy (there's a scene where she finds a dead pigeon and cuts its head off to keep). But it was easy for me to push the supernatural to the side for most of the movie because an unexpected turn.
This is the scene I keep thinking about even days later. The teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolf) lies to his mother that a party he wants to go to is more of a school BBQ and she makes him take his sister. He takes her, and leaves her alone for a minute so he can smoke pot with the girl he likes. Charlie eats some cake with nuts in it and starts going into anaphylactic shock. Peter puts her in the family car and hurries her to the hospital, and of course you can see the accident coming. But I was 1000 percent not expecting the way it would go down and how it would be depicted. The accident is horrifying, and it both is and isn't Peter's fault. You could see a teenager getting into this situation from being mildly irresponsible, but not outrageously so. We don't see exactly what happens and it isn't clear that Peter has. There's an incredible scene of Peter just staring straight at the camera for at least a full minute, stunned, and the sense of horror and dread and there's no going back from this is palpable. Alex Wolf, the by way, who I've only ever seen in Jumanji nailed this scene. He heads home, in a daze, lies down in his bed, and there's an extremely painful scene of his blank face as he can hear his mother's off-camera screams as she discover's Charlie's body. Toni Collette's screaming here was more disturbing than any piece of violence or weirdness that occurs in this movie.
For almost all of this movie but the end, you could interpret it as being about the impossible task of the family dealing with this death. How does a mother then relate to her son? How can he possibly cope with being responsible for the accident? When supernatural things seem like they're happening--Peter and Annie seeing apparitions, Peter's self-injurious behavior--this can all be explained away by hallucinations they are experiencing from intense grief and guilt. There's also the issue of mental illness: Annie's family tree is rife with it, and she rather casually mentions at a grief counseling meeting that her mother had Dissociative Identity Disorder. Personally I don't believe in DID, and wasn't sure how I'd feel if the movie turned out to be about it. Abrupt changes in Annie's behavior--ostensibly from possession--could be explained by DID if you wanted to take a non-supernatural interpretation of this movie. It was this aspect of the movie--grief as the supernatural--that I found most intriguing. It could have ended ambiguously, and I thought the movie was headed this way, but then it goes full Black Phillip.
Black Phillip, if you haven't seen The Witch, is the family goat who at the end of the movie, starts speaking in the voice of Satan. The talking goat is the point of no return, and the same thing happens in the last fifth of Hereditary.
We then get firmly grounded in the idea that the witchcraft angle is real. This leads to an ending that was very similar to The Witch with a dash of Rosemary's Baby thrown in. The one thing that left me a little puzzled is why--possessed or not--Annie bizarrely kills herself. Whatever entity that has taken her over (and it isn't clear who exactly) already has possession of the body, so why it needed to end her life was unclear (unless, I suppose, it was a human sacrifice). Overall, grounding it in witchcraft didn't take away the emotional complexity--much like how The Witch was still about all these strictures that were/are put on women. It still raised interesting questions-- was Annie's sleepwalking actually sleepwalking, some supernatural thing, or some form of mental illness? Was what Peter did something he could ever come back from? (I desperately wanted him to just leave the house and not come back.) How can the husband (Gabriel Byrne) draw the line between indulging his wife and allowing her outbursts while also being wary that she might be in the middle of a psychotic break? How can he balance dealing with his own grief while the tension between his wife and his son is becoming worse and worse?
There is one thing about this movie that I did not like and found unfairly gratuitous: WHY WHY WHY the dog. Come on man. Any horror movie or thriller where there is a family dog, it is basically there for four-legged cannon fodder. Towards the end of the movie the dog isn't particularly present and I probably would have forgotten about it . . . Except then there is a one second scene that just shows the dog's body cast aside in the garden, it's murder, apparently, occurring off screen. By someone. For some reason. THIS WAS A SENSELESS DOG DEATH. WHY. It did nothing for the plot, and the dog did not get to fully develop his character arc as a result.