how hereditary made me go to the movies again

I don’t go see movies in the theatre. I know, I know– I’m a film student how can I not?

One: I’m cheap and I have a terrible memory. Ten dollars is a lot to spend on something I will probably not remember much about in a week.

Two: I live in a college town in Alabama, where the majority of movies we see cycled through our one megaplex are Major Motion Pictures. Nothing against them, but I likely don’t care about the latest big-budget comedy (starring Melissa McCarthy, probably) or the fiftieth witty and quirky superhero movie. Just not my thing.

That being said, recently I went to the movies for the first time in years to see Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Two weeks later, I went back to see it on the big screen a second time. And I’m so glad I did.

Hereditary was being praised on my Twitter timeline as something that was bringing true psychological horror back. It didn’t rely on jump-scares, but instead was banking on its plotline which, by the way, was a near mystery thanks to the film’s marketing. I hadn’t seen widespread praise like this since the release of Get Out, and since my dumbass missed seeing that in theaters, I didn’t want to take the chance in missing the Full Experience of another landmark film in my favorite genre. So, I went in. Basically blind. I even bought popcorn.

And– pardon me– but Holy Shit. Holy shit!!!! Sitting still in my seat after the credits began to roll, my mouth hanging open, I was hooked. For the next few days my queue on YouTube was videos discussing “What You Missed in Hereditary!” and “Ari Aster and Cast Talk About New Film, Hereditary.” There was so much to unpack, to explore, and to discuss. So much so that I was back two weeks later, ass in seat, ready to rewatch.

Here’s a few things that made me come back– and yes, there will be spoilers.


the cast

Toni Collette. Good GOD, Toni Collette. I, admittedly, didn’t know who Toni Collette was, but I have never had a performance take me on a rollercoaster like hers.

Collette’s character, Annie, has two scenes where she proves herself as the powerhouse of the movie. The first is a AA-style grief counseling session in which she attempts to work through a realization that with the death of her mother, she believes she has become a burden to her family. It’s a moment that changes the dynamic between her and every other character. The trauma and abuse she’s experienced with her mother were never given the opportunity to haunt her like they do now that she’s gone and all that’s left is the memories Annie has with her. How do you deal with knowing a person who you are made to love and care for has given you nothing but guilt to live with?

Next up is the confrontation between her and her son, Peter, after the death of Charlie, the family’s youngest child. Charlie, after having an allergic reaction at a party (that Annie forces Peter to take her to), is decapitated by a telephone pole as Peter frantically is trying to race her to the hospital. No one in the family knows who to blame. At a stale family dinner, Peter pleads with his mother to communicate with him, to give him some sort of sign as to what she’s feeling. He’s met with an explosion after he begs with her to “Just fucking say it!” Annie laments that if only he could own up to his actions, that maybe Charlie’s death would have brought them together, but she needs his apology to move on. It’s a terrifying picture of a mother at her breaking point, and just like Peter, I shrunk in my chair as she towered over the camera, screaming, because “Nobody admits anything they’ve done.”

The other moments where simple expressions on Collette’s face send chills through your spine are countless. From the bedroom confession that she had tried to miscarry Peter, to the scene in front of the fireplace with her husband, there are so many masterful times in this film that Collette knocks the breath out of you. And the beautiful part about this movie is all the other components work together to make sure you never catch your breath again.


the shots

Ari Aster and Pawel Pogorzelski know how to use one frame to make your skin crawl. That’s the brilliance of this movie– the sense of unease that you’re trapped with from the start that only escalates and becomes more threatening.

Two shots in particular come to mind. The reveal of Charlie’s decapitated head on the side of the road and Annie’s possessed body upside down slamming her head into the attic door are both inserted quickly, and barely give you time to process the horrific scene in front of you.

Up until the shot of Charlie’s head, we don’t know exactly what happened to her. We know it’s gruesome given the crack we hear when she connects to the telephone pole and her mother’s reaction, but because Peter never has the courage to look back in the seat, we’re left clueless. That is, until Annie goes to the car the next morning. When she discovers the headless body, the audience is shown the discarded head, rotting on the side of the road. We process the image as Annie wails in the background, and suddenly we feel the horror that she did when she was forced to discover the aftermath of her son’s mistake.

During the climax of the movie, when Annie is no longer Annie, but a host body for a demon, Peter is chased into the attic only to be met by rapid knocking on the other side of the door. We know it’s Annie, but as Peter pleads with her to stop, a shot of her hanging upside down off of the ceiling, slamming her head against the attic entrance is cut in. In that moment, for me, I knew some real f*cksh*t was about to go down. I can’t even explain it further than that.


the marketing

Sure, I knew I was going in for a horror movie. What I didn’t know was that this was a movie about a family cursed by a demon that their grandmother had summoned as the leader of a cult. No trailers told you that– and it’s genius.

The clips released as teasers focused around Charlie, the incredibly unsettling youngest daughter of the family. A child who cuts the heads off of dead birds and carries them around, was breastfed by her grandmother, and has an eery tic where she clicks her tongue (at the most inconvenient times). A classic horror trope of a freaky little kid. That’s the storyline people were expecting.

Except when Charlie is violently killed in the first half hour of the film. The one component I was certain was going to be part of the film was gone. All bets were off, and I knew at that moment that I had no idea what was in store.

What I ended up with was a carefully constructed web of biblical allusion, lore, symbolism– the whole nine yards. It was deeper and more intricate than I could fully process after only seeing the film one time. I had to go back and see it again. I had to understand. Who was Paimon? Was the cult responsible for everything? Why was everyone killed in the way they were killed? Why Peter in the end?

Sometimes it seems like movies give everything away in the trailer, and there’s no point to see them because you know the whole story. Hereditary keeps you guessing until the last shot. And after you leave.

And when you try to go to sleep that night.

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