** Warning: this review contains full spoilers. **
Family can be hell. That’s the general premise behind Ari Aster’s brilliant and deeply disturbing Hereditary, which serves as a cautionary tale about – and a brutal study of – the demons we inherit and pass down within our families.
The movie opens with a death – an obituary and a funeral service for matriarch Ellen Leigh – a “secretive woman” of many “private rituals” according to her daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), who is having a hard time mourning her as someone she “didn’t really know.” But of course, Grandma Leigh is far from gone from the story, in fact, her appearance early on in the film as a ghost sends a clear signal that she’s still very much a part of the picture – not to mention the fact that her grave gets desecrated soon after the funeral.
Annie’s teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) seems a fairly apathetic but mostly normal teenager, but his younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – who was much closer to her Grandma – has a nut allergy, a spooky demeanor, makes unusual clucking noises with her tongue, draws creepy pictures and has a tendency to craft dolls from all manner of random household items – including the occasional severed bird head. Meanwhile Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), offers mild support but otherwise pretty much stays out of things, while Annie spends her time making detailed miniature dioramas of everything upsetting that occurs in her life.
When Annie drops by a grief counseling support group meeting, she reveals that her mother had D.I.D. (Dissociative Identity Disorder) as well as dementia before she died, that Annie’s father had “died of starvation”, and that her brother had committed suicide and blamed his mother for it, citing that she was “trying to put people inside him.”
Annie attends to all this and much of what occurs throughout the movie with a detached matter-of-factness and a twinge of disbelief and confusion, yet she also references multiple times that she has feelings of guilt and self-blame. We learn that she had been estranged from her mother and had kept Peter far away from his grandmother’s grasp, but later “gave” Charlie to her to make up for it, allowing her to “sink her claws into her”. (One (particularly disturbing) diorama shows Annie caring for baby Charlie in bed, while a sickly-looking Grandma offers up her own breast to feed Charlie with).
When an unspeakable tragedy strikes (yes that scene, that shocking and utterly distressing scene) it becomes the catalyst for the family’s emotional, psychological and ultimately, physical descent into hell. Eventually we learn that Grandma had been the head of a cult that worships a demon named Paimon (his symbol appears throughout the film), and that she had a long-cultivated plan to use one of Annie’s children as Paimon’s healthy human host body. Paimon had first possessed Charlie, but his true and final target is Peter.
How much agency or control do we have to escape the curses, demons or traits of our parents? This is essentially the main question Hereditary asks, and it’s referenced early on and again later in the film in one of Peter’s classes, in which his teacher discusses Greek tragedies and mythology, including the tale of Iphigenia, whose father sacrificed her to the gods as payback for a mistake he had made. The teacher asks the class whether a story is more tragic if the persons involved have control over their actions or whether it’s more tragic if they’re controlled by pre-determined forces, such as fate or some will of the gods.
Annie tries to maintain control of her situation with her dioramas and genuine efforts to be a good mother. But time and again she comes up against forces beyond her control, such as her sleepwalking episodes in which she inadvertently tries to hurt her children. She doesn’t consciously want to harm them, but her mother’s curse has been cast, and it controls Annie despite her best waking intentions.
Likewise, when Charlie loses her head against the telephone pole, we see the symbol of Paimon is carved into it, indicating that there are forces at work beyond the mere fact of Peter’s irresponsibility.
Annie eventually determines that she herself is the key to preventing Paimon from possessing Peter, citing “I’m the only one who can stop this.” Thanks to the help of her new “friend” Joan (Ann Dowd) (who is actually part of the cult), Annie conjures Charlie’s spirit in a seance, and becomes possessed by her for a moment – but Steve thinks it’s all nonsense. After Peter — controlled by Charlie/Paimon — smashes his own face into his desk during school, and with added pressure building from work, Annie destroys her dioramas before finding her mother’s bloated, rotting, headless corpse in the attic (how’s that for a metaphor?), along with photo-books and notes spelling out Ellen’s sinister, occult-fueled plans.
She concludes that the only way to truly save Peter from her mother’s curse is to sacrifice herself by throwing Charlie’s drawing book in the fire, but her husband, Steve, refuses to play along and it is he who instead gets engulfed by flames.
At this point, Annie becomes possessed by Paimon and loses control over her actions completely. She chases after Peter and is forced to helplessly observe in horror as she cuts off her own head. Meanwhile Peter jumps out of a window to escape some naked cult members, at which point he essentially dies and becomes possessed by Paimon himself.
Paimon the demon is an agent of chaos and destruction, and by the end of Hereditary the ritual is complete. King Peter/Paimon is the successor or inheritor of the demon from “Queen Leah” while Annie loses both her agency and her head (literally and figuratively), succumbing to the curse of her mother. Charlie was first possessed and then killed as the youngest sacrifice of the family, and Steve, though he is not of the Leigh/Annie bloodline, nonetheless has been burned alive by its evil power. Even the dog has been killed. All while the cultists (enablers?) continue their maniacally twisted worship (“Hail, Paimon!”)
Hereditary is one of the scariest, most affecting movies I have ever seen – one that actually packed more of a wallop upon a second viewing. There are numerous visually, emotionally, and auditorily shocking, striking and terrifying moments within the film. Ari Aster’s use of light/shadow (along with Director of Photography Pawel Pogorzelski) and sound (most noticeably an absence of it punctuated only by ticking clocks and tongue clicks) is pure mastery (even more shocking that this is Aster’s first feature film). The performances are outstanding – especially those of Collette (an Oscar-worthy turn) and Wolff (who may have actually sustained PTSD from his performance). But more than anything Hereditary is an extremely harrowing, emotionally and psychologically gutting family drama as horror film that masterfully confronts the toll that mental illness, dysfunction, grief and/or tragedy can take on a family. Paimon could really represent any number of things both physical and mental that have the potential to traumatize, break down and destroy a family from within and get passed down to the next generation. The great horror of Hereditary is the inescapable dread of a cursed bloodline to which one may be doomed to succumb – and if that isn’t fucking terrifying then I don’t know what is.