Everybody’s family looks better from the outside. No matter how well put together a group of people may appear to be, there is some hidden drama, crisis or trauma kept out of plain view. That secret turmoil is reserved only for the family’s most trusted friends and confidants…or sometimes, it is considered too embarrassing, too horrible, to raw to share with anyone not bonded to it by blood. These are our deepest, darkest and heaviest familial burdens. And everybody on the planet carries some. The only difference between them is their weight. This truth is fertile ground for exploring all kinds of horror, and Hereditary does a frightfully good job of doing it, bringing us a harrowing tale of tension, tragedy, madness and malevolence that will change the way one looks at telephone poles, fireplaces, piano wire and treehouses. But more than that, it makes us question what secrets our parents took with them to their graves, and wonder what horrors from which they were trying to protect us…or inflict.
The story begins as miniatures artist Annie Graham eulogizes her mother Ellen, with whom Annie had a tense relationship. She describes her mother as secretive, manipulative, overbearing, and more. With Annie is her family—her husband Steve, and their teenaged son Peter and daughter Charlie. Clearly, Annie carries some heavy memories from her years of conflict with her mother, and attends grief counseling to sort her feelings out. But just a few steps into her grief journey, gruesome tragedy strikes the family, and from that point onward, the tension in the Graham house becomes unbearable. Annie—whose family has a history with mental illness—begins to crack under the immense strain of losing a mother she secretly wished would depart, and the even worse strain that comes when traumatic loss piles upon itself. But more than that: there are subtle and creepy indications that something supernatural is afoot, and Annie is given an opportunity to contact the recently departed from beyond the grave for one last chance at a goodbye. And that is when things begin to take a truly strange turn for the worse as Annie begins to realize that whatever horrors she thinks she has gone through with her impossible mother and her unnerving daughter and her feckless husband and her ungrateful son…they are nothing compared to what is about to befall her. Sometimes the sins of our parents are so great that their children must bear the ultimate price of them. And sometimes, the price takes more than one generation to be repaid. That is, if the debt can be repaid at all.
This movie is not terribly original. Once one gets over the initial shock, scare, rush and revulsion of the story’s various reveals, one might recognize where various elements of this have appeared elsewhere. In fact, one could even suggest that this movie is largely a mash-up of a few other legendary horror movies from the last several decades. But that’s alright, because this movie is all about its flawless creation of a very finely tuned sense of tension on multiple levels. Tension with oneself. Tension over the generations. Tension within the immediate family. Tension with one’s own sanity. Tension with grief. Tension with discovering secrets best left unfound. Tension with realizing that things are so far beyond your ability to control them. There are a few moments of shocking horror to be had here—especially disturbing visuals dropped on the audience with little to no advance warning. But for the most part this story is all about building a slow burn in which we get to appreciate just how fraught Annie really is, just how much help she needs, and just how little support she has. For a story about the bonds of family, we get an awfully deep dive into the horrors of true isolation.
We see that isolation in Annie’s unique journey through her grief and the extremely dense thicket of emotional issues she can’t seem to come to peace with. We see it in her husband Steve, who might be as useful as a screen door on a submarine, but we are made to feel for him as he spins on his own, not knowing how to help any of the people in his orbit would could use his skills as a psychologist. We see it in Charlie’s deep weirdness and connection to her dead grandmother in a way that seems to skip over the line of normalcy and land in some kind of undiscovered country. But she is in there on her own, and she is simultaneously too young to know what she is in for and too wise to be in real peril…right? And when we finally we see it in Peter, we see it brutally: literally figuratively, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. So alone that he is doomed, and because he is doomed, he is forever alone.
There is a lot to unpack in this movie that cannot be discussed without spoiling it; the second half of the story, especially. And because Hereditary is best appreciated when one is not entirely sure of where its destination is, the moment of truth here is in the middle of the movie, after the family has experienced just about as much trauma as it thinks it can take. It gathers for dinner, as it would every other night. Except this night is not ordinary. No night henceforth ever will be, and everyone at the table knows it. And that’s when it happens: Peter claps back at his mother, and Annie unleashes such a vicious torrent of parental rage, unresolved rage at her mother and traumatic rage at a world that no longer seems fair or logical or good. When it is over, we know Annie’s rage is not subsided. She is just too exhausted to yell anymore. And that’s when the real pain begins. That’s when we learn there is always a deeper circle of Hell.