Your enjoyment of HEREDITARY may depend on how many horror movies you’ve seen. If you haven’t seen a lot, most of it will shock the ever-loving bejesus out of you. If you have seen quite a few, you might get a kick out of counting all the bits that you’ve seen in other films from the genre. Or, if you’re a horror fan, you might be confounded or even angry at how everything from the kitchen sink appears to be thrown into this one while its once taut narrative spins out of control.
The shame of it is that HEREDITARY has so many outstanding facets to it. Assuredly written and directed by Ari Aster, he’s chosen to keep his film filled with dread rather than a high body count. The film’s production values are exemplary, particularly the deliberate camera work and subtle sound design. And it contains an intensely committed and affecting performance by lead Toni Collette, not to mention shrewd and able support by her fellow cast members Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd and Milly Shapiro.
Aster starts things off with an unsettling image that sets the tone for most of what’s to come. The camera slowly moves in on an elaborate and detailed dollhouse. It’s clearly hand-crafted art, and as we get closer, it focuses on one of the bedrooms. Then, rather eerily, the room becomes real with a teen boy waking from his bed. Is this a dream, a metaphor, or the film telling us that the line is going to be very thin between fantasy and reality? Yes, yes, and yes. And the movie only gets better from there.
We’re introduced to the occupants of the house, and at first, they appear to be a fairly relatable family. Dad Steve (Byrne) is a calm and stoic sort, gently nudging the self-absorbed teen boy Peter (Wolff) to get his clothes on for his grandma’s funeral. He’s overslept, as has his younger sister Charlie (Shapiro). She’s an eccentric 13-year-old, moody, morose and very unsettled by the death in the family. Then there is mother Annie (Colette), a woman so high-strung that she’s already sitting in the car ready to go to the church before her children have even awoken.
At the funeral, the first huge chinks in the family armor are exposed. Annie barely knew the woman she eulogizes, and she seems bitter and unforgiving about her mercurial mother. They were estranged for most of their lives, and the older woman kept many secrets. In fact, the whole family seems estranged from each other even though they’re living under the same roof. Perhaps such aloofness is indeed, hereditary.
And the more and more we spend with the Grahams, the more we realize just how peculiar they all are. Annie is on edge, sleepwalks, and has wild mood swings, from manic to motherly. Steve seems inert in his abilities to calm her or influence the comings and goings in the house. Peter keeps to himself to a fault and is starting to lie, particularly over his affinity for drugs. Charlie is the oddest of all. She’s in her own little world making strange clicking noises with her tongue, scribbling weird portraits in her sketchbook, and sulking about in the corners of rooms, friendless at school and in need of some definite child psychological therapy.
The history with her mother sticks in Annie’s craw so much so that she starts to see apparitions of her, or at least believes she does. It doesn’t help that the miniatures she makes are all of her weird life, including unseemly scenes with her mom. Her mother exposing a breast to feed one of Annie’s babies, or the family watching Grandma wither away in the hospice are just two of the tableaus Annie has made for her gallery show. Charlie seems to have inherited the same creepiness as she makes her own sinister sculpture art out of wires, wood, and beheaded birds. The young girl also is having visions of Grandma as well. You know what they say about that apple and how far it falls from the tree.
Then, a major character is beheaded in an automobile accident, and it throws the family into utter turmoil. Resentments build, relationships strain further, and Annie turns towards spiritualism to help her grieve. She meets Joan (Ann Dowd, at her most unctuous) at a grief counseling session and is talked into trying a seance to contact her dead family member. Annie becomes obsessed, and her adamancy creates further rifts amongst the remaining members who think she may be losing her mind. Watching Collette try to cajole them is one of the film’s creepiest moments. She’s a cheerleader for the dead!
But then, as the third act kicks in, the movie starts to fall apart. The narrative becomes ludicrous, zigzagging from one crazy scene to another with players bobbing in and out of character, and dozens of horror clichés filling the screen. And, in the last 30 minutes, Aster throws in all too recognizable bits from ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE FURY, FIRESTARTER, THE WICKER MAN, THE SIXTH SENSE, THE OMEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and THE SHINING. It starts to seem more like fanboy homage than a cogent climax.
It’s almost as if the filmmaker doubted his script’s intellectualism and decided his final act needed balls-to-the-wall histrionics to jazz us even more after all that’s gone on before. It didn’t, and his miscalculations rob what had been a terrific effort before then. His Annie character was utterly terrifying just as a human being without having to turn into some sort of Freddy Kruger/Mrs. Baylock/Jack Torrance hybrid in the final reel. Perhaps the hereditary in the title really refers to all that Aster derived from those other movies for his third act, but he should have willed it away.