Your enjoyment of HEREDITARY may depend on how many horror movies you’ve seen. If you haven’t seen a lot, most of it will shock the ever-loving bejesus out of you. If you have seen quite a few, you might get a kick out of counting all the bits that you’ve seen in other films from the genre. Or, if you’re a big horror fan, you might be confounded or even angry at those derivative bits being tossed in, along with one too many other ideas that end up seriously marring the last act. The film falls just short of greatness due to its wildly overplayed finale.
The shame of it is that HEREDITARY is quite terrific before it unravels. Assuredly written and directed by Ari Aster, the film is filled with dread rather than a high body count. The film’s production values are exemplary, particularly the deliberate camera work and subtle sound design. And it contains an intensely committed and affecting performance by lead Toni Collette, not to mention able support by her fellow cast members Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd and Milly Shapiro.
Aster starts things off with an unsettling image that sets the tone for most of what’s to come. The camera slowly moves in on an elaborate and detailed dollhouse. It’s clearly hand-crafted art, and as we get closer, it focuses on one of the bedrooms. Then, quite eerily, the room seamlessly becomes real, with a teen boy waking from his bed. Is this a dream, a metaphor, or the film telling us that the line is going to be very thin between fantasy and reality? Yes, yes, and yes. And the movie only gets better from there.
We’re introduced to the occupants of the house, starting with dad Steve (Byrne). He’s a calm and stoic sort, gently nudging the self-absorbed teen boy Peter (Wolff) to get his clothes on for his grandma’s funeral. Younger sister Charlie (Shapiro) isn’t ready for the trip to church either. She’s an eccentric 13-year-old, sullen and morose. Then there is mother Annie (Colette), a woman so high-strung that she’s already sitting in the car ready to go to the church before her children have even awoken.
At the funeral, this family’s dysfunction is exposed even more. Annie confesses to barely knowing the woman she’s eulogizing, and the bitter daughter indicates that she hasn’t forgiven her mother for the many years of estrangement. The mercurial mother kept many secrets from her daughter too, and Annie confesses to not knowing any of her mom’s friends who show up to mourn.
The more and more time we spend with the Grahams, the more we realize just how utterly secretive and strange they all are. Annie is always on edge, sleepwalking, and displaying wild mood swings day and night. Steve seems inert, even cowardly, in his abilities to calm her or control the wildly undisciplined household. Peter keeps to himself to a fault and lies about his affinity for drugs. And Charlie? Well, she’s the oddest of all. The girl chooses to remain aloof from all, locked in her own private world where she can talk to herself, make irritating noises with her tongue, and scribble ghastly portraits in her sketchbook. She has no friends and is the type of oddball who enjoys decapitating a dead bird and toting it around in her backpack.
Meanwhile, Annie’s fraught history with her deceased mom continues to stick in her craw to the point that she thinks she’s haunting her. It doesn’t help that the miniatures she makes are all of the oddest moments of her weird family life, including unseemly ones with her mother. Her mother exposing a breast to feed one of Annie’s babies, or the family watching Grandma wither away in the hospice are just two of the tableaus Annie has made for her upcoming gallery show. Charlie seems to have inherited a similar creepiness as she makes her own sinister sculpture art out of wires, wood, and that beheaded bird. The young girl also has visions of Grandma too. Indeed, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this family.
Then, a major character is beheaded in an automobile accident, and it throws the family into utter turmoil. Resentments build, relationships fray, and Annie turns towards spiritualism to help her grieve. She meets Joan (Ann Dowd, at her most unctuous) at a grief counseling session and is talked into performing a seance to contact her dead family member. Later, when Annie cajoles her family to join in yet another seance in the middle of the night, the film reaches its zenith of freakiness and unsettling terror.
But then, as the third act kicks in, the story starts to wobble. The narrative becomes a lot more silly than scary, players zig and zag out of character, and bits are borrowed from other famous frighteners. Aster throws in tropes from ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE FURY, FIRESTARTER, THE WICKER MAN, THE OMEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and THE SHINING, and the uniqueness of the film turns too derivative. It almost plays like fanboy homage rather than a cogent climax.
Did Aster doubt his script’s strengths and decide to give his final act a balls-to-the-wall finish to seem bigger and more commercial? Perhaps so, but that miscalculation robs what had been a unique effort up until the end. Seeing everything but the kitchen sink tossed into the ending while turning the Annie character into some sort of Freddy Kruger/Mrs. Baylock/Jack Torrance hybrid is not only disheartening, but it’s also almost laughable.
Perhaps the hereditary in the title actually refers to all that Aster derived from those other movies for his third act, but he should have trusted his subtler instincts. His film could have been a modern classic, something on par with GET OUT and IT FOLLOWS, a shrewd and intellectual exercise in horror, but it falters at the finish line. Not only are the last 20 minutes desperately undisciplined, but the actions on screen don’t tingle the spine. They make you scratch your head.