Hereditary Revisited

I understand why Hereditary went straight to Amazon Prime. It doesn’t earn its critical praise, though many disagree with me, and in the last two days I was made aware/reminded of such disagreements by three different friends. Since I never actually reviewed Hereditary I will now by way of reply.

It could have been a good film, I’ll grant it that. Up until you start to realize what’s really going on, the film shows promise, depicting a family tragedy that turns into a nightmare, involving the grisly decapitation of a child who was socially awkward from the day she was born. The child’s spirit seems to haunt the family members and their home afterwards, with a deft blurring of the psychological and supernatural. The parents and older brother rage at at each other, and inwardly at themselves. They retreat into silence, unable to bridge the chasms of grief. Then, in the third act, the film switches gears; the supernatural becomes overt; and the drama devolves into, well, a crock to say the least.

This devolution is all the more frustrating since Hereditary is that rare horror film that has the balls to end on a note of pure hopelessness. Every member of the family is killed. The forces of evil have their ways with this family, just as those forces have planned all along. I love that premise of inevitable despair which mocks free will. But when the scares aren’t that scary, when the themes clash, and when the plot somersaults on its ass, there’s kind of a problem. Here, specifically, is how the third act torpedoes the film:

1. From the subtle to the cliche. The final act robs shamelessly from countless classics: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Exorcist III: Legion, The Omen, The Amityville Horror, The Wicker Man, The Witch, and still more. One critic has amusingly suggested that the title “Hereditary” could just as well refer to all these blatant rip-offs. (To say “homages” would be too polite and conciliatory.) And these rip-offs, in context, aren’t very scary — considerably less so than the subtle moves of the first act.

2. From psychosis to the occult. The film begins by exploring (or at least seeming to explore) the hereditary angle of mental health — that people inherit psychosis and neurosis from their alienated sires. But when the third act takes a hard left into the occult, the mental health angle is either dropped or wedged into a Satanic theme (which effectively trivializes or demonizes those with mental health issues), resulting in a clash of subgenres.

3. From Annie to Peter. Annie is the main character — and played very convincingly by Toni Collette — but it turns out that Hereditary isn’t her story. It’s Peter’s story, and when the focus switches to him, his “ascension” feels wholly unearned. Not to mention confusing: we are to understand that he is the male vessel needed for the Devil-King Paimon. But if Paimon has been liberated from the female host (Charlie) that confined him, then why does Joan address Peter as Charlie? Does she now reside within Peter as well? For that matter, it’s not even clear why Paimon needed a male to manifest, as he had been possessing Charlie (and doing creepy things through her) since she was born.

The final act in the treehouse — despite the wonderfully grotesque imagery of decapitated worshipers — fell flat for me, because the whole concept felt intrusive. It evokes Rosemary’s Baby and The Witch, but Hereditary doesn’t earn its stripes as an occult film. It should have been what it began as, and I wish Director Ari Aster had had the courage of his convictions to play out a psycho-horror story to an organic conclusion. There’s certainly nothing wrong with occult/supernatural films (I love them, believe me), only that the transition to that material doesn’t work in Hereditary.

Aster is at his best in the early part of the film, when he mines the family for despair and dysfunctional dynamics. I was pumped for Ordinary People meets Twin Peaks meets something original. Instead I got muddled & murky meets every supernatural classic I’ve seen.

I know I’m in the minority here. So have at me and say why I’m so wrong.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5.

One thought on “Hereditary Revisited

  1. All three of your points I agree with, they just did not bother me as much. I think the filmmaking is really what sold it for me, and I was generally on board until the last ten or fifteen minutes. I’d say a solid 6 overall?

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