I didn’t include Hereditary in my list of best religious or occult movies ever. This was in spite of the fact that it contains occult references and a demon. At the time of my initial viewing, the movie struck me as more psychological horror than religious or occult horror. As amends for this oversight, I wanted to give Hereditary a reaction-based blog post of its own.
When I saw the movie for the first time, there were a number of wtf moments. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, then you should know that there are spoilers in this review. In fact, the first time I watched the movie, I couldn’t make it all the way through. Not because it was overly terrifying, but because the sheer level of continuous anxiety driven home by Toni Collette was more than a little unnerving. On the other hand, upon watching the movie all the way through, I felt thoroughly rewarded by the experience.
The movie begins with Toni Collette addressing mourners at her mother’s funeral and introducing her husband played by Gabriel Byrne and children played by Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff. Toni Collette’s character, Annie, is an artist. Her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is, perhaps, the creepiest character in the story. There is an almost chronic sense of pins and needles anxiety that pervades each scene. The only other movie I can remember where I’ve experienced this sensation was El Topo and that was only certain scenes, . If you suffer from generalized anxiety disorder or just about any other kind of anxiety disorder, be sure to fill yourself with Valium before delving into this movie.
The daughter, Charlie, is just off. Not only is she bizarre in appearance, her affectation blows straight off the spectrum. She likes to draw hideous pictures of people and when a bird crashes into the window at school, she uses her teacher’s scissors to remove its head. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she has an allergy to nuts, a problem that will create a new tragedy for the family.
Since the daughter is so awkward, Toni Collette, demands that Peter, her son, bring young Charlie to a party. Charlie is very ill-equipped to deal with a large number of people engaged in social exchange. At some point, Charlie eats something with nuts in it and goes into anaphylactic shock. Peter rushes Charlie out of the party and attempts to driver her home. Since she cannot breathe, she sticks her head out the window where it strikes a pole and she is decapitated.
The son, of course, feels at least partly responsible for this turn of events but also blames his mother for forcing Charlie to go to a party that neither he wanted her to be at nor she wanted to go to. Of course, he also leaves her alone to go smoke a bong with a girl who has barely any interest in him but he nonetheless fancies. Charlie begins to have trouble breathing after Peter smokes the bong and he races her home where there’s an epi pen, but, well, you know what happens. This is the first of many wtf moments in the movie. In fact, although I was alone, I distinctly remember saying out loud: “Did that really just happen?” I knew, of course, that it did happen. Peter then sits in his car for an extended period of time, and then makes his way back home with his sister’s headless body in the car.
The next scene cuts to Toni Collette wailing which will make up many of the remaining scenes in the movie. Her wailing is superimposed over the image of her daughter’s head being consumed by ants and other insects.
Earlier, however, Toni Collette reveals that her brother, who suffered from schizophrenia, hanged himself in her mother’s bedroom at the age of 16. The brother accused the mother of “trying to put people inside of him”. When she tells this to a recovery group for those who have lost family members, they all stare back at her awkwardly. Toni Collette nonetheless continues to tell her entire story in rapid fire fashion expressing a complex range of emotions that are not entirely decipherable to either the people in the support group or the audience at large. She ends the eruption by indicating that she is “to blame” for the entire thing but corrects herself and says instead: “I am blamed”.
The dialog is interesting throughout. Each of the characters appear to have to exert a strenuous amount of energy to even form basic sentences. They often express exasperation after making the effort. Toni Collette can often be found infusing her children with the sort of panicked anxiety that comes across as almost angry, like she doesn’t have time to deal with all her kids bullshit.
Anyway, after Charlie’s death, Toni Collette spends most of the time so twisted in grief that you hardly make out what it is that she’s saying. This isn’t to say that her performance was lacking in some way. She is, as always, brilliant. It’s just so perpetually unnerving that it ties you up in knots. Nor am I saying that the effect produced by Hereditary is bad aesthetically. It does what it does very well. It’s just difficult for the viewer to sustain that kind of anxiety for two straight hours.
This is part of the reason why the movie did better with critics than it did with audiences. No one is this film is likable and yet you can empathize with their sorrow and their pain. There are moments when you actually think you can like Toni Collette and almost immediately, her character will rob you of that desire. This is particularly true when she screams at her son for the accident that took her sister’s life. He replies calmly that it was she who insisted that Charlie go to the party. Worst family dinner ever.
And then, of course, there’s the incident where she’s standing over Peter, the son, after having dumped a bunch of paint thinner in the room and struck a match. The striking of the match, she says, woke her up.
Then there’s a scene with Toni Collette and another woman who lost a child of her own. While the woman is explaining the details of a seance she attended, Toni Collette appears to be looking away toward the audience. The woman continues to grab her and situate her direction toward her while she explains what happened at the seance. Again, this is extremely unnerving. Toni Collette continues to get distracted or her attention continues to turn away from the woman and the woman responds by adjusting her. This is precisely the subtly that I’m talking about and the impact it has is to raise your anxiety level to an anxiety crescendo.
In fact, the rare moments of solace or stillness serve only to lull you into a false sense of calm. The more aware you become of this, the more the calmness itself becomes cause for anxiety.
There’s a lot of different kinds of fear. There’s dread of an impending terror. There’s fright, that shocks you into a moment’s terror. There’s eerie, which hints at realities that are too terrifying to imagine. All these different kinds of fear have their role in horror. But anxiety? That’s a different kind of fear entirely. That’s a personal kind of fear. And one that you seldom see in a horror movie.
Yet Hereditary is a horror movie and it is one of the most effective horror movies in recent memory, maybe ever. It’s occult and religious themes are almost incidental to the type of horror it evokes. For that reason, I neglected to consider it when I was drafting my Best Religious Horror Movies of All Time. I was wrong though. It belongs there.
Still, I would classify Hereditary as a kind of emotional torture porn or anxiety horror.