Hereditary (2018) Subverts Horror Clichés Until It Becomes One

Hereditary 4

I love investing countless hours in horror – reading scary books, watching scary movies, reading about horror, discussing horror films and books with friends and strangers, meditating on whether or not I would survive a slasher film, pondering whether or not vampires are real. The list goes on.

So when the trailer dropped for Hereditary, I was all in. I’m always down for a new horror movie, especially one that promises to deliver on “disturbing”. I love horror, but I don’t want to be shaken by a gross image or a jump scare. I’m beyond that. I want horror that makes me feel fucked up and emotionally destroyed afterwards. That’s the kind of thrill that I’m looking for.

I didn’t necessarily want to start this review by calling Hereditary a disappointment because there are things about the film that I like. But if I’m going to be totally honest and vulnerable with you all, then I’m going to just have to come out and say that Hereditary was, overall, an underwhelming remix of old horror clichés.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, please stop reading now because I’m going to absolutely ruin it.

Hereditary 2

Hereditary was marketed as one of the scariest movies of the year – nay, the last century. The film was heralded as the second coming for the horror genre – a beacon of prestigious, real serious cinema in a genre riddled with cheap violence and even worse filmmaking. I bought into it, but this type of hype is always a warning sign. Horror is so subjective. What frightens one person isn’t going to frighten another (unless we’re talking about haunted dolls, I don’t know how anyone could be not afraid of a haunted doll). This type of marketing tactic also feels like a stunt pulled by the studio to get you into theatre seats on the vague promise that you’re going to be super shocked because the movie is SO. SCARY.

For the first half-hour-ish, I thought that the film might live up to all the hype. While I accurately predicted that whatever force haunting the family was going to go after the kids based on Ellen’s note to her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), I didn’t actually think that a 13-year old girl would get decapitated. Kids and animals rarely die in horror films! That was probably the high point for me simply because it subverted my expectations and actually went there. But it’s not enough to go there when the rest of the film lacks a coherent theme and deeper message.

For a film called “hereditary”, it actually does very little to establish the family dynamics. We never actually see Annie and her family interact with Ellen. We hear a lot about what type of person Ellen might have been based on Annie’s eulogy and her description of familial trauma at a group therapy meeting. But by not showing it, writer/director Ari Aster really doesn’t make this family the central focus. And if you’re making a movie about how trauma and abuse is passed down from generation to generation, then the family dynamic should be the central focus, right?

Hereditary 3

Also, I’m still confused as to what it is that’s being passed down in this family. Is it a demon or mental illness? Is it both? I’m not really sure because at the end of the film, Annie’s son Peter is possessed by the demon his grandmother conjured…but he’s also possessed by his dead sister Charlie?

I really don’t get it and it’s because the film wastes too much time trying to hide its supernatural element until the very end, even though it drops really heavy-handed hints throughout – Ellen’s books that Annie goes through at the beginning of the film, the strange markings on the walls and floors in the family home, the beams of light, the voices, the séances. It’s clear that there’s some weird witch stuff going on, but why is Annie so confused by it when it’s so obvious to the audience? How can Annie have never noticed her mother’s cult-like behaviour, especially when her mother lived with her near the end of her life? This is about a family and their secret trauma, right? How do Annie’s actions reflect the trauma that her mother passed down to her? It’s hard to say because we spend so little time with extended family in the film.

And that’s another major problem. Annie spends most of time with Joan (Ann Dowd), a total stranger who ends up being the one to indoctrinate Annie into this cult. I don’t understand the choice to make Joan a stranger in a film about family. Even in fucked up families children still have a desire to connect with and be loved by their relatives, so that Annie ignores her mother’s strange rituals but is taken in by a séance with a stranger doesn’t ring true. Nor does it make sense that a stranger would reach out to her so outwardly after one group therapy session. That’s how I knew that Joan was somehow involved in the supernatural stuff – no one in real life is that nice. It would have made perfect sense and kept with the theme if Joan was a long-lost relative – a distant aunt or a cousin in town for Ellen’s funeral who tries to connect with Annie. Joan just feels like such a rookie mistake. If Annie’s mother Ellen lived with them before she died, how did Annie not see photos of Joan before? The pillow Joan had at her apartment was another slip – oh, how convenient, this total stranger embroiders in the exact same style as my mother. Come on.

For a film about how mental illness and trauma is passed down from generation to generation and destroying children in the process, it’s weird that the main conflict would come from outsiders. The possession may have started with Ellen, but it’s carried out by random cult members who also aren’t given enough development or characterization to understand their place in this story or their motives. Is this a movie about community or family? The film is symbolic until it just isn’t and then it becomes a Wickerman-style film where the evil is personified outside of the main character instead of coming from within. It stops being something that’s passed down and inherently within us – something that’s hereditary, if you will.

Hereditary 1

Bouncing off that family theme, the film also deals with complicated feelings about motherhood. I appreciate trying to tackle the subject because there’s a constant narrative pushed about being a mom in media – that women attain some sort of wisdom or fulfillment through motherhood, that it’s a saving grace, that it’s the pinnacle for moment for women, etc., etc. I really liked the dream sequence where Annie tells her son Peter that she never wanted to be his mother and tried to induce a miscarriage because I think that regrets about motherhood need to be articulated in order to be normalized so women will stop being demonized for not being a perfect ideal. But while it’s refreshing to see the negative aspects of motherhood explored on screen, Hereditary does very little to expand those ideas into a full theme.

As much as I like that scene, we never get a fuller examination into Annie’s conflicting feelings about motherhood because the movie spends more time on the supernatural cult dynamic. There’s already a discrepancy on how “bad moms” in film and television are received compared to bad fathers – take a look at all the sexist rhetoric surrounding how Betty was talked about on Mad Men versus Don, for example. And Hereditary becomes just as stereotypical. Obviously Annie’s tense relationship with her mother would have ramifications in her relationships with her own children, but we never get to see it. We get Annie telling Joan that she almost lit her children on fire when she was sleepwalking, but how else do these feelings of motherhood affect this character and this family?

If you want to talk about how mothers can fuck up their children, let’s talk about it. But it’s hard to take this topic seriously from a film that buys into other stereotypical and negative portrayals of women and their inner world. Once again, paganism and occultism is portrayed as something exclusively used by women to destroy the men in their lives. We’ve been perpetuating this rumour that witchcraft is connected to the devil for hundreds of years now. In this modern age, can we finally give it a rest? While a film like The Witch portrays witchcraft as salvation from a patriarchal life (in some ways), this film uses it as a force against husbands and sons – it’s implied that Ellen’s husband and son killed themselves to resist being possessed by the demon Ellen was trying to conjure and Annie’s foray into the occult kills her husband and her son, who already feel helpless against her.

I’m not calling the film outwardly sexist because I don’t think that was the intention. But using women in horror films to create fear without constructive analysis of the female experience that the film attempts to tackle is becoming a tiring cliché. Too many horror films use women’s bodies and uniquely female experiences to create a horrific world that doesn’t feel real to me – an actual woman.

I liked Hereditary for the chills it gave me. I’ll forever be unsettled by Toni Collette’s body floating creepily around and by her banging her head against an attic door repeatedly. But what does it have to say about the undesirable and difficult aspects of motherhood? Or of reconciling the pressures of being a mom placed on you from your family with your own internal need for personal freedom and expression? The film doesn’t fully explore that leaving an uncomfortable message that women, specifically mentally ill women, are at fault for ruining their families and sending them into a vortex of pain and despair.

Hereditary is not much more than a B-grade horror movie with some solid performances by great actors. It had the promise of something more, but the cult aspect and the failure to really explore motherhood through a feminine perspective makes it lose steam. Nevertheless, I appreciate the effort to do something different. Aster is a director with a vision and a tone and this is a very accomplished first feature. While it definitely stumbles and trips over standard genre tropes, it’s not a bad movie. It’s just not good enough for this horror aficionado.