Contains major spoilers – do not read if you want to go in unprepared. THIS IS YOUR FIRST AND ONLY WARNING.
Well, it's been almost a year since the last instalment of the Lupine Film Club. Thank you all for your patience;
A friend sent me the trailer for Hereditary earlier this year, and I was immediately intrigued. When you’ve been watching horror for as long as I have, you get pretty wise to the tropes and clichés of the genre, and it’s easy to get a little jaded about the whole thing. I mean, the yearly franchise stuff that gets churned out like Saw or The Conjuring series is fun and all – but it’s nice to have something with a little more style and substance.
Based on that trailer, Hereditary definitely looked the goods. Having now seen it, I certainly agree it has a lot more style than your average franchise fare. The substance…well, I’m still not totally certain yet. But it absolutely did certainly throw my expectations for a loop.
Going in, I assumed that Hereditary would be a pretty straightforward ghost story. The grandma dies, the little girl is a conduit for her ghost (or at least something malign imitating it) and all manner of weird stuff unfolds from there. Nothing particularly original, but that’s okay. The successful execution of a well-worn formula can be very satisfying in its own right.
But this isn’t quite how things play out. The film starts off this way, complete with “is it real or not” visions of the deceased grandmother – but not long afterwards, the little girl we’ve been assuming is the villain is brutally killed in a car accident. Her ant-riddled head on the roadside must surely be one of the most iconic (and disturbing) scenes in horror cinema this year.
From here, the film movies into more of an extended meditation on grief and dysfunctional family dynamics. This is arguably where the film is at its strongest, as it wrestles with some uncomfortable questions that none of us really like to address – what if we aren’t sad that a family member is dead? What if we don’t really love our kids? How do you deal with survivor’s guilt? And how do you cope with a family member who’s in the midst of a breakdown?
Throughout all of this, the cast is solid but not especially sympathetic. Toni Collette easily acquits herself as the film’s primary likeable character. Gabriel Byrne is fine, but he doesn’t blow you away; anyone could have played the role, really. Milly Shapiro is particularly disconcerting as the introverted (and unlikeable) daughter. But the primary weak link is Alex Wolff, who plays half his scenes well and the other half as though he was portraying a 9-year old who’s afraid of the dark.
After a séance, more overtly supernatural elements begin to emerge, causing issues for all the surviving members of the family. New Age figures like John Edwards and Alison DuBois tend to present the image that the dead are happy to hear from us and have plenty of nice words to pass on. But what if the dead were angry – justifiably angry, even – at the way they had been treated by their family?
It’s an interesting idea, but it ends up being another red herring – for the ghost is no ghost at all. Rather, as we discover fairly late in the piece, it’s a demon prince named Paimon, masquerading as deceased loved ones. Now,is a name that will likely be unfamiliar to you, unless you have an active interest in the occult and demonology. Kudos to the filmmakers for going in a slightly different direction for the supernatural foe, but it does create an issue with the film’s ending that I’ll detail a little more below.
Hereditary effectively builds mood and tension throughout the piece, but it comes with some flaws. It’s a shade over two hours long, and it absolutely feels longer. It also plays pretty fast and loose with its own “rules” about the supernatural. Towards the end, strange stuff seemingly happens solely for the sake of being weird and/or violent. This is not a bad thing in principle, but I’m not quite sure Hereditary establishes its own dream logic or surrealism effectively and early enough to allow for some of its own conceits. Which brings us to the Suspiria and Wicker Man-inspired twist ending!
It's a bold departure from the rest of the film, and it’s sure to polarise audiences. There are definitely clues peppered throughout as to the true nature of Paimon (even hidden in the soundtrack) – but unless you’re unusually conversant in Western Esotericism, you’re probably not going to spot them. Sure, you can do the reading and be impressed at the level of detail afterwards, but I don’t think this should be a prerequisite. Twists need to be effectively telegraphed; audiences should be able to go “Aha!” when they eventuate, drawing new significance from earlier elements in the film with this fresh knowledge in mind.
Hereditary doesn’t exactly cheat on this front, but I’d argue that it does play on the audience’s assumed ignorance to force an extra level of bizarreness in the final scene. By contrast, Skeleton Key and The Wicker Man played similar moves much more effectively. The relevant lore and mythos was gradually introduced throughout the respective pieces, and then twisted at the final moment for an horrific reveal. Here, it feels a little more shoehorned in, though I suspect some will argue that it’s a natural extension of the occult themes that the film explores.
These issues aside, Hereditary is well worth your time and money. It’s creepy, unsettling, sticks with you long after the credits have rolled and though it wears its influences on its sleeve, it feels remarkably fresh. To cap things off, it has a fantastic soundtrack too. Ultimately, I don’t know whether Hereditary will be the best horror movie of 2018, but I can almost certainly guarantee it will be the most talked-about.