At the time the release of Hereditary (2018), the directorial debut of Ari Aster, it received much praise and acclaim from critics. However it failed to impress audiences. A24 productions has already cut its teeth with the likes of Kevin Smith’s 2014 insanity, Tusk. The following year, A24 dazzled with Oscar Isaacs and Ex Machina (2015). Hereditary’s pedigree and potential intrigued us here at Malevolent Dark.
This review does contain unmarked spoilers as it’s difficult to review this one without alluding to major events.
A Fractured Family Endures Terrible Loss
Admittedly, we performed very little research on the film prior to viewing. The film concerns the trials and tribulations of the Graham family. While the family remains whole, fractures can immediately be seen. Annie Graham (Toni Collete) bereaves the loss of her secretive mother. Her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) seems emotionally reserved, if not outright odd. As the story goes, Annie’s managed a strained relationship with her mother, Ellen, until the birth of Charlie. At that time, Ellen came back into her life and helped raise Charlie. Her son Peter (Alex Wolff) seems normal enough, but he feels the tension between his mother and father Steve (Gabriel Byrne).
It feels like a set up for a slow burn; however, the film takes a shocking turn rather quickly.
With her face prominently displayed, the movie poster conditions to the audience to believe that Charlie will play a major role in the film. Truth be told, she does… just not in a living capacity. While dealing with her unresolved feelings for her mother, Annie demands that Peter take to Charlie to a high-school party. Kinda weird, but ok. At the party, Charlie consumes a treat that triggers a severe nut allergy. Peter scrambles to get her to a doctor. As Charlie hangs out of the car window to open her constricted throat as Peter dodges a deer in the road. In an instance of literal mayhem, a collision with a telephone pole decapitates Charlie.
The death of Annie sends the Graham family into a destructive spiral born of Annie’s and Peter’s contempt for each other and their pointed blame for Charlie’s death. As horrible as there circumstances appear, this event proves merely the tip of deep, dark iceberg of a terrible events to come.
Coming completely from the outside, we thought we were getting into a dark, but human film. By this we mean, a human drama built wholly within the confines of reality. Ari Aster swiftly executes a head fake and drives the narrative to a quick descent into witchcraft and demonic possession. It’s only at this point that minor details, like a strange sigil on the telephone pole that decapitates Charlie, begin to coalesce into a deftly crafted yet beautifully tangled narrative of evil.
What Ari Aster slowly builds a tale of demonic summoning and familial betrayal that spans generations. He builds this narrative so slowly and craftily that the viewer never sees it coming. As it turn out, the Graham family have been hopeless passengers on a journey that they never knew they were taking. They never had an inkling of a chance to control the outcome.
Full disclosure, it required a deep dive with the folk at Horror History on YouTube to fully appreciate the breadth and depth of Ari Aster’s story. We recommend checking it out AFTER watching the film. The full scope of this film can only be fully appreciated in review. Ari Aster anchors his story around a demonic entity named Paimon documented in the real pages of the “Pseudomonarchia Daemonum” written by Johann Weyer in 1577. Using the rough framework detailed by Weyer, Aster adds his own artistic influence.
Great Casting and Performances
Ari Aster’s casting decision provide a connective tissue to hold this story together. It begins with Toni Collette as Annie. She exudes a strange confidence even though her circumstances continually unravel he at the seams. The strength of Collette’s performance and the depth of her anguish anchors the entire film. Milly Shapiro plays the role of Charlie. Shapiro possesses a unique quality to her character that naturally places her in a sympathetic role. Her portrayal could be described as odd to say the least. It’s not until all the pieces fall into place that the true gravity of her nature becomes clear.
As Ari Aster feigns Charlie as the centerpiece of the story, her brother Peter, played by Alex Wolff, slowly evolves from the unassuming side-car to the keystone in a monument to all things horrible. Bearing responsibility for Charlie’s death, he too demands sympathy and this demand goes through the roof as the audience realizes that his entire life amounts to nothing more than a cog in a giant satanic wheel.
The final peice of the puzzle that takes Ari’s vision over the top comes in the form of Ann Dowd In the role of Joan. Ann may be most famous for her role in A Handmaid’s Tale as the pious Aunt Lydia. Ann channels of that pious nature to the dark side as she portrays the leader of a secret coven committed to raising a vessel that holds one of the top Lieutenants of hell.
As an honorable mention, Gabriel Byrne does Gabriel Byrne and we all love Gabriel Byrne.
The Horribly Fantastic
Ari Aster takes Hereditary to wonderfully dark places. Purely from the perspective of the loss of a child, Charlie’s death rattles the soul. Aster foreshadows Charlies decapitation in a way that makes the audience wince in fear of what they know to come. He then punctuates the scene by dwelling on a shot of Charlie’s smashed face while ants crawl indignantly across her cold flesh. It’s quite awful to behold, but also very powerful.
Sticking to the morbidity of decapitation, Annie suffers an even more horrible death as she floats helplessly in the attic while slowly decapitating her own head with a garrote in some of the most terrifying imagery in the film. Her arms cycle back and forth as if driven by some unseen machine, slowly removing her own skull from her spine.
In final ode to all things horrible, Peter finds the decomposing skull of Charlie atop an effigy of Paimon as final affront to the senses. It’s so horrible, yet so wonderfully done that the imagery continues to float in the mind’s eye of the audience long after the film ends.
A Fantastic Debut For Ari Aster
Hereditary actually doesn’t break a ton of new ground. In fact, it feels mostly like a modern take on Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Still, enough room remains in the world of horror for a craftily made film using old ideas. The execution of Ari’s film deserves praise. He changes direction more than once and the finale sneaks up on the viewer at a slow and methodical pace. Hereditary adds yet another solid entry to A24’s growing catalog of fantastic horror films.
Hereditary (2018) - Deliciously Morbid and Wonderfully Made - Malevolent Dark
Director: Ari Aster
Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:33
- Beautifully Crafted
- Wonderfully Horrible
- Compelling and Engaging
- Doesn't break new ground
- May rattle the cage of pop horror fans