Hereditary is the film that launched Ari Aster, director and screenwriter, to fame as one of the greatest current exponents of the horror genre and together with Yorgos Lanthimos (director of The Lobster) marks the return of European culture to Hollywood. Along with this return of European culture to mainstream Hollywood, I feel that both directors also mark a return of magical and religious thinking (even reaching as far back as the Greek tragedies in the case of Lanthimos), in short, of the ancestral narrative that now appears as a refreshment in the face of so many “modern” films that have neither feet nor head, much less the mystique that can be extracted from the ancestral culture.
Well but… What is Hereditary about? Basically, it’s about a grandmother who was part of a satanic cult, worshippers of King Paimon (a demon of great power), they need Paimon’s soul to pass into a male body. However, this grandmother’s son commits suicide when they try to put the demon in him, so now she needs “new children”. In order to satisfy this need for a new child, the grandmother tries to take possession of her daughter Annie’s (the protagonist’s) first child, but she does not allow it. The guilt that comes from taking the grandmother away from her first child leads Annie to allow her to get close to her little daughter Charlie, who acquires Paimon when the grandmother dies. However, the problem persists, Paimon needs a male body and the only solution is to find a way for Annie’s first child to be possessed by the demon. It is then that, through the great guilt that Annie feels towards her son (whom she did not want to have) the dead grandmother and the members of the satanic sect manage to manipulate her to make this possession happen. But in between, a lot of events happen that put a lot of pressure on the protagonist and prevent her from seeing things as they really are until it is too late.
Annie’s character can be described as the artist who prefers to be alone to concentrate on her creations rather than worrying about her family, this is the main problem she faces, because for each negative event that happens in the story, she closes herself more and more, demonstrating again and again her inability to share with the rest of the family, especially with her husband. This defense mechanism that she demonstrates comes from her initial impulse, her desire to be free, which comes from having lived with a controlling and manipulative mother, but it leads her to assert guilt for all the harm she causes her loved ones. Worst of all, when she decides to talk to others, she does it in an aggressive and unempathetic way. Proof of this is in one of those tense scenes in the film (I know, there are a lot of them) where the husband prepares the meal so that everyone can gather to share, after Charlie’s unexpected death. Faced with Annie’s constant refusal to confront her son Peter, who is the accidental cause of his younger sister’s death, Peter forces her to say something, anything, and she responds aggressively, further alienating her son and losing her husband’s sympathy.
But let’s get to the horror, is this movie really scary? Well, it is difficult to answer that question. The first time I saw it, I feel that it caused a constant impression of discomfort in me, especially because of the soundtrack and some scenes that I found extremely tense, especially the one of Charlie’s death. What the film achieves masterfully is to build an atmosphere of constant danger, of always being closely watched. Some images achieved with beautiful cinematography manage to evoke a spiritual sensation that adds further tension to the events that are taking place. On top of all this, the acting of the main characters, especially Toni Collette (Annie) and Alex Wolf (Peter) keeps us anchored to reality for much of the story, especially when it comes to the reactions to the paranormal events that occur. And these paranormal events are also anchored to certain reactions to be expected in human beings when faced with situations of fear or great suggestion, such as the alert reactions to the environment that occur when the person is suggested about the existence of dangers that cannot be seen. Another thing is the iconography that is used in the film that subtly explains the influence and cult of this King Paimon, although obviously only a person with a high knowledge of demonology could recognize such symbols. For the rest of us mortals, I feel that the symbols used bring back memories of both movies like The Blair Witch Project (stick-built elements) and pagan culture (I know it’s a very broad term but I’m referring to European folkloric roots).
After this film, Ari Aster delved deeper into the idea of Scandinavian lore with Midsommar, which proves his broad influences and interest in European lore and pagan and ancestral religions. As a film, Hereditary is undoubtedly the best attempt at mainstream horror since perhaps “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and just like that film, it manages to build an atmosphere that supports the genre and really produces this sense of discomfort that leads you to think, to imagine, if all these demons and hellish creatures really exist. For that and for reconnecting with ancestral culture, I feel Hereditary is a film that is completely worth seeing.