By Christopher Sharrett.
As the end credits roll for Ari Aster’s horror film Hereditary, we hear Judy Collins sing her hit song from the 60s, “Both Sides Now,” appropriate for the kind of film that wants to keep us guessing as it tries to walk a fine line between supernatural and psychological horror, accomplished with only partial success. The poster for the film says “evil is hereditary,” not only announcing that what we see is indeed the product of Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) tormented family history, but affirming the medieval idea that mental illness is “evil.” More important, the film is part of a trend (I think of The Babadook, Lights Out) where madness and evil are located firmly in the female, turning her into a screaming shrew, an out-of-control harridan, who won’t listen to her calm, fed-up, put-upon husband (here Gabriel Byrne). At the center of this kind of horror is the face of the female, distorted with rage, suggesting the woman as unleashed hurricane deadly to civilization. It is the face of the gorgon or the witch, the hideous crone far beyond the pale as a subject for the gaze, characterized with reference to hysteria, the kind of insanity that won’t sit still for male blandishments or consolation.
After burying her mother, with whom she has had a troubled relationship, Annie joins a grief support group, where she announces, a bit too dramatically, her family history of depression and psychosis. Her daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro) is then accidentally killed by her son Peter (Alex Wolff), the grief from which pushes Annie over the edge, plunging her into a world of hallucinations and demons. Since Peter is her blood (this is where heredity comes in), he too breaks down/is possessed by monsters.
Extreme mental illness can indeed be frightening (I had a childhood friend who developed paranoid schizophrenia), but there is nothing monstrous about it, and it indeed has been the center of some compelling thrillers (Spellbound, Psycho, The Innocents), but using it to provoke the usual jump scares suggests to me poor judgment, certainly as illness is located so much in the wife-mother, and as insanity connects the female to the nonsense of witchcraft (never portrayed in the enlightened mode of nature worship).
The first reel of the film is compelling, showing Annie at her profession of creating dioramas of domestic interiors in miniature for an art gallery – eventually her work includes a tableau of the accident that took her daughter’s life, complete with blood and decapitation. There is at first a sense of “minimalist” horror, drawing on terrible family dynamics alone for effect. With the rumbling soundtrack score by Colin Stetson, with its sustained shrill notes, there is the sense that the film is going in the direction of Kubrick’s The Shining, allowing domestic life alone to create the atmosphere and make the essential points. It looks like Aster accepts the Sartrean “hell is other people” as the springboard for the film. But that aesthetic doesn’t hold, as Annie finds evidence that her mother was a Satanist, a worshipper of a demon called King Paemon (an Iranian legend; like Pazuzu in The Exorcist, the Middle East is the ultimate source of dread, as orientalism cannot be escaped, it seems).
The emphasis on the mise en scene of the domicile is effective in conveying the family home as primary source of fear, emphasized by Annie’s dioramas (recalling the work of artists like Gregory Crewdson and William Eggleston), which comment on her need for control of her life while also reminding us of the genre’s history of using family life as the source of horror (for this there is no better source than Tony Williams’s Hearths of Darkness; I know that Prof. Williams and I have been involved in some mutual back-scratching on this site, but it usually has benefits for the reader – or at least a few chuckles).
Alas, it is arguable if the family, that is the patriarchal family, is the guilty party here. Toni Collette offers a remarkable performance in the film, but principally if one is scared of getting yelled at by one’s wife or mother. The approach of the dark heart of insanity is compelling, as is its manifestation in hideous visions. But when viewers start asking “what really happened?” a film’s ambiguity is in peril. The hints of the supernatural in The Haunting (1963) or The Innocents never take us away from the drama at the films’ cores: the effect of repression on consciousness. Both of those films, by the way, are focused on women’s sexuality, but in service of a discussion of male authority (The Haunting, a distinguished work, is burdened by a problem faced by many films of its era: it takes back what it gives in terms of a recommendation for women’s rights and sexual freedom).
Hereditary is a film of some distinction at least at the level of formal control; as an organic work fusing form to concept it is very questionable, in part because one can’t say, I think, what its concept is. As a look at the family unit, the film is fuzzy; if it is a study of mental illness and its effect on the female – and her effect on others – we must feel a trifle embarrassed.
Christopher Sharrett is a Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University and a Contributing Editor for Film International, and a Contributing Writer for Cineaste.