Hereditary (2018)

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.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

I think that if there is one movie that should be shown during Easter week it is “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, forget about those old stories about the death of Jesus or the Ten Commandments, no, no, no. None of those movies have the ability to persuade you to give the Christian religion a chance like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a movie that takes inspiration from the case of Anneliese Michel, a German girl who was apparently a victim of possession, a case that gained fame for having occurred during the modern era, which put religious doctrine directly against scientific thought and resulted in the conviction of Anneliese’s parents and the priests who performed the exorcism to prison for the girl’s death. This real-life case shares many beats with the story of the film and just like the real case, the film is also framed in a discussion between religion and science, a key element that makes this audiovisual piece an emotionally charged story that could convince more than one agnostic about the existence of the realm of the supernatural.

As usual in this blog… Let’s start at the beginning! When I re-watched the movie, before doing the review, there was something that caught my attention about the beginning of the story. It’s what Lagos Esgri calls the “point of attack” or the moment the writer chooses to begin the story. In the case of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the story starts in two different ways, the first is during the moment of Emily’s death, which is the beginning of the story of Father Moore, who is accused of negligent death. The second point of attack in the story is the first scene in which the protagonist, Erin Bromm, the lawyer who takes on the task of defending Father Moore, appears. In the first scene in which Erin appears, she is working in a bar, while her colleagues are all celebrating. The thing is, she is the one who has something to celebrate, she has just won an important lawsuit (she saved a person accused of murder) and yet, instead of celebrating the success, she decides to keep working. Now, I think it’s an interesting point of attack that screenwriters Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman have chosen, as they could have chosen to start the story from Emily Rose’s point of view or perhaps the first time Father Moore encounters the case. But they have chosen the optimal point of attack for the development of the plot they want to tell. For the film is a supernatural crime thriller and the story centers on the trial against Father Moore. So, it is very convenient that the story starts with the father being accused of the murder and his lawyer (reluctantly) taking on the case.

Before the “lock in” (the so-called fighting decision), which occurs 15 minutes in, we already know more or less what the whole movie is going to be about (at least between which poles it is going to move), in part because of the conversation between the two trial lawyers in the case. In this part of the story, Ethan, the prosecuting attorney, indicates that he is Catholic, even asking for a glass of water when Erin invites him for a martini (thereby assuming a moral superiority to her), but then indicates that if it were up to him, Father Moore would go straight to jail, according to the law. This statement surprises Erin, as she had assumed that Catholic people had a strong sense of compassion and forgiveness. From this moment on, we witness the trial against Father Moore, in which the two poles of the plot are intensely debated, the scientific aspect, supported by Ethan and the prosecution, and the religious aspect, assumed by Erin (although she is not religious, but declares herself agnostic) after her first strategy fails (her initial strategy is to discredit the medical evidence presented by the prosecution). The struggle reaches the midpoint of the story when Erin finally assumes that the events that occurred could in fact be the product of the supernatural realm, after meeting Dr. Cartwright, the doctor who was present during the exorcism, and from here on out the film moves intensely towards this version of events, giving us several convincing arguments for the possibility that demons, and therefore God, exist. In fact, one of Emily Rose’s iconic lines is one in which she argues that people say God doesn’t exist, but how can they think that if she shows them the devil? She comes to this conclusion in one of the most emotionally (and cinematically!) powerful scenes in the film, the moment when she understands why this whole demon-possessed thing is happening to her.

The ending of the film is not at all bombastic and I think it’s good that it is so, what it does is that it shows a small change in the attitude of the protagonist, Erin Broom, who goes from being agnostic to being a believer (in a very symbolic but subtle way). Father Moore is found guilty of “negligent death”, but the jury makes a recommendation to the judge, they ask for a “sentence served”, acknowledging his guilt but considering that he has already paid for his crime.

Now and before I finish, I can’t but talk a little bit about the horror aspect of the film. And I feel that this is the weakest point in it I remember the first time I saw it, this aspect made a great impression on me, but this time I have to say that it felt rather forced. In the end, the demonic aspect of the possession is nothing more than a bunch of guttural screams and incidental music, but in the visual aspect it leaves much to be desired. Maybe it’s because that effect where people’s faces transform into demons has been used ad nauseam in thousands of youtube videos and the like. I don’t know, it makes me think of another film that I think has achieved a better visual section on the satanic theme, The Ritual (2017). Some of the visual effects in The Exorcism of Emily Rose I don’t think have aged well with the passage of time.

I think that’s all I can say about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a film that presents interesting arguments about the possible existence of the realm of the supernatural and really leaves you wanting to know more about it. The main character, Erin Broom, is also a very interesting one, especially because of the great performance of Laura Linney, who gives great intensity to the argumentative sequences during the trial. Perhaps also because her antagonist, Ethan (Cambbell Scott), plays an equally intense role during these scenes. And let’s keep in mind that this movie has a lot of dialogue and is also very entertaining and quick to watch, something that is definitely not easy to achieve. It is for all these reasons that I feel Emily Rose is the perfect movie to watch during Easter week, or as Emily says, how are you going to deny the existence of God if I show you the devil?

The good:

  • The performances of Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson and Campbell Scott.
  • The arguments for the existence of the supernatural realm.
  • The scene where Emily understands why all this possession stuff is happening to her.

The bad:

  • The horror parts don’t make as much of an impact as before.
  • The use of animals to represent evil (come on! If animals are so good!).

In summary… see next to the chocolate eggs.

Paradise Lost (1667)

Paradise Lost is an epic poem written by John Milton and has been catalogued by many as the best representation, within popular culture, of Satan (even better than that found in Goethe’s Faust?). But this story is much more than a bombastic representation of the baddest of all bad guys, within its pages we can find a series of events that may be familiar to us (such as the story of Adam and Eve) but told in a very peculiar, almost theatrical way, which gives the work a different quality within religious literature and literature in general. But I feel that the most interesting thing about Milton’s epic is the discourse implicit in its 286 pages (in the version I read), a sharp commentary on the scope of freedom in the midst of religious doctrine and, because of this, on the relationship between man and divinity.

But what is Paradise Lost all about? I think we’ve all heard (well, most of us have heard) the old story of how Satan was expelled from paradise and his inevitable fall into hell because of his corrupt ambition. This epic poem gives us that story, but in great detail. Had you ever heard that the angels threw mountains, yes… mountains! at each other during the battle in heaven, prior to the fall of the rebellious angels? Well, in John Milton’s story, this and other crazy things happen that the reader is unlikely to forget. But I feel that in the center of the story is described a questioning of Lucifer’s or Satan’s reasons, in relation to why he decided to engage in a war in paradise, having absolutely everything in his favor as one of God’s favorites. The author presents his own version of these events, endowing the angels with great rhetorical skills, as they engage on several occasions in discussions about what is right and what is wrong in the universe, what can and cannot be done, and so on. Satan’s motives then appear initially as almost trivial, he questions the powers given by God to his first and only son, bestowing him with such endowments that he surpasses even those of the angels, accustomed to being the only favorites of the creator, having him as their only superior. What bothers Satan is that now he will have to lower his head, not only before God, but before his son as well. Did you see? That is why I say that the situation may seem trivial at the beginning, but behind this tantrum is hidden the author’s true discourse, a discourse that brings him closer to the concept of freedom, so elusive in markedly hierarchical situations such as those described in God’s paradise.

But Satan is not the only one who debates about freedom in the face of the great divine powers; the fate of human beings is also intertwined in the matter. It is as if, in some way, Satan’s incursion into paradise and the subsequent loss of paradise by Adam and Eve, once again revealed the scope of freedom in this world dominated by the preceding will of a creator entity. Is it freedom for Adam and Eve to live immortal lives in a place that provides them with everything they need, as long as they obey the laws of the one who grants them such gifts? The situation becomes more complex at this point, for if we advocate the freedom of humans to commit sin, we would be equating ourselves with Satan’s thinking, at least in ideological terms (for obviously the angel went a bit further by throwing mountains at the other angels). And it is possible that Milton may have realized this peculiarity while writing his story, although his own individual freedom may have led him to mitigate the impact of such a statement (perhaps because of the time in which the story was written) by imposing on all discourse and events the pre-existing will of God, who always appears as an omnipresent figure and as the genesis of all movement. So much so that an angel appears before Adam to comment on all the events that will occur, including the loss of paradise and the torments that ensue, all as part of the great plan of the creator to forgive them in the end, via the sacrifice of his only son.

Now, we can get down to debating what kind of divine plan can involve so much suffering, death and destruction so that in the end it all ends in forgiveness. I have been thinking about it a bit and I feel that Milton wants to tell us that at bottom God is assuming that Satan and evil have come from himself, that they are part of creation and that their manifestation is as much a part of the matter as the other powers (a pantheon that includes such ancestral beings as Chaos, described as the only thing that was before the light). Now, if angels could rebel against God and his only son, this makes them as permeable to error as human beings, however, only the latter are punished with death (although on second thought, the angels who fell into hell fared much worse).

Well, as you saw we could be talking about Paradise Lost for a long time and most likely even more doubts will arise about the whole thing. What I can say about Satan, sorry, I didn’t really talk much about him as a character, is that in his speech we can find a lot of facets with which we can identify, his charismatic personality really provokes thought, even makes you want to forget that we are in the presence of the evil one par excellence. That impulse to not give up in the face of adversity, from the depths of hell to the earthly paradise, the pride that leads him to face beings much more powerful than himself (fallen in disgrace, I think that in his normal state things would have been different) are all characteristics that lead him to the deserved position of main character of the story. Without fear of being wrong, I can say that Paradise Lost is a story that is completely advanced for its own time, I would even say that in its pages we can find qualities that, without a doubt, have served as inspiration for later stories, such as the saga of “The Lord of the Rings” and even modern stories, such as Japanese animations and the like. But, above all, I can point out that the discourse on freedom that we find in its pages elevates the story to a higher level within the stories of its genre.

The positive:

  • Satan as the protagonist of the story.
  • The battle between the angels.
  • The speech about freedom.

Negatives:

  • The pile of titles for some characters slows down the story.
  • Jesus is too OP in the war of the angels (joke!).

In short… read or die!