Over the next week, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy cinematic moment from 2018. Next up is Ari Aster’s Hereditary. (Read our previous entries here.)
Ari Aster has made no secret of the fact that Hereditary, his debut film and one of the best-reviewed pieces of horror this year, was inspired by his own life. No, Aster did not (as far as I know) find himself at the center of a plot to restore a satanic demon to Earth. But he’s said in interviews that the movie’s wrenching family drama came from a personal place. “It’s easier for me not to go into detail. I was more pulling from feelings than experiences,” he said, also comparing his work to that of the British master of the kitchen-sink drama, Mike Leigh.
Hereditary is about a family that is gradually torn to shreds by an unspeakable force, one summoned by its enigmatic matriarch, Ellen, a grandmother whose funeral begins the film. Unbeknownst to viewers until later in the movie, Ellen is a worshipper of the evil spirit Paimon. She has planted the seeds for his earthly arrival first in the body of her daughter, Annie Graham (Toni Collette), and then in her granddaughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), both of whom are prone to behaving oddly (Annie sleepwalks, Charlie mutilates birds, and they both make disturbing art). Half an hour into the film, Charlie dies in a horrific freak accident that plunges her family into a suffocating grief.
In Hereditary, the Grahams’ dark past and the awful events of the present have been engineered by a dark energy beyond their control. As Annie begins to realize the extent to which her mother orchestrated all this misery to help move Paimon from Charlie’s body into that of her strapping son, Peter (Alex Wolff), she acts if she’s unraveling a conspiracy theory, ranting and raving to her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and son as they grow more afraid of her. It’s in Hereditary’s loopy final act that the film’s deeper ideas about the corruption of the family unit really began to sing for me—particularly in one largely silent scene in which any semblance of reality is destroyed for good.
Peter awakens in bed in the middle of the night, only dimly aware of just how bad things have gotten in the house. His father is dead, having been spontaneously engulfed in flames in the living room, and his grandmother’s corpse has been exhumed and is decaying in the attic. And his mother? Peter doesn’t realize it, but she’s perched in the upper corner of his bedroom, somehow hovering in the air, stuck to the wall and watching him. It’s one of Hereditary’s best and nastiest scares, because it takes the viewer a second to even realize she’s up there, hidden in the shadows.
“Mom?” Peter calls, not noticing. “Dad?” As he climbs out of bed, he finally turns around, as if sensing he’s being watched. Aster finally cuts to a close-up, over Peter’s shoulder, as Annie crawls out of her son’s field of vision just in time, skittering away like a centipede. It’s the beginning of the end for Peter, who is then lured downstairs for the family’s final, gruesome ritual. But the scene is also a truly chilling representation of how he has been haunted—without his knowing—since birth, cursed by his own bloodline.
His mother, who’s there to protect and love him, has been seemingly animated against him; he’s not even secure in his own room. When Peter goes downstairs and finds his father’s body, there Annie is again, clinging to the ceiling, like an oppressive entity that he can’t hope to escape. The horror trope of the haunted house, of course, plays on our fears that the place where we feel safest might turn against us. Aster’s idea is to take that dislocation and apply it to the idea of a haunted family—who might say they love you in one instant and try to kill you in the next.
There’s no image in Hereditary that better represents that ominous feeling than the slow, long shot of Annie on the ceiling, looking equally protective and malevolent as she watches her son sleep. Despite all the shocking gore, elaborate deaths, and satanic worship, that was the scene that unsettled me the most. Yes, Peter—and the rest of the Grahams—all meet extremely bitter ends. But it’s the foreboding, brutal buildup to those moments, and the sense that all this suffering is preordained, that makes Hereditary one of the most effective works of horror in recent years.
Next Up: Leave No Trace