THE SCARIEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME???? Ehhhhh….
Bad stuff happens to a family.
This movie is actually really complicated, so I’m gonna split this section into sections.
Part I: Charlie & the Chocolate Allergy
The film tells the story of the Leigh family, consisting of Annie (an artist that whittles model houses), her son Peter (a dumb stoner), her daughter Charlie (a creepy person who likes to make clicking noises and sleep outside in her treehouse), and her husband Steve (an Irishman). Following the death of her mother, Ellen, the family goes to the funeral, at which are a bunch of old people none of them recognize. In her eulogy, Annie explains that her mother was a very private person, and that she suffered from numerous mental illnesses prior to her passing.
Back at the house, Annie looks through her mother’s belongings. She finds a book on spirituality, in which there’s a note apologizing to her, but explaining that “all her suffering would be worth it.” She goes into Ellen’s room, on the floor of which is carved a large triangle (that was expensive hardwood, Ellen). Later, when Charlie is outside at school, she sees an old woman across the street staring at her.
Annie decides to go to group therapy for grief counseling. After getting peer pressured into speaking, she reveals her tumultuous family history. Both her father and brother died from suicides related to mental illness, which hurt her relationship with her mother. The two had intermittent periods of no contact, but she eventually let Ellen back into her life after Charlie was born. Ellen was living with the family in the few years leading up to her death.
Peter gets a text from his friends about a party, and asks if he can borrow the car. Annie, who should be able to ascertain that any event attended by her stoner son will probably involve drugs, alcohol, and other risky behaviors, pressures him into taking his 13 year old sister (parent of the fucking year). Charlie is hesitant to go, but Annie guilts her into it. The two leave.
Peter and Charlie arrive at the party and go inside. Peter spots the girl he likes, makes a bit of awkward conversation, and then asks her if she smokes weed. She kind of says yes, and the two go off to a room. Charlie, in an attempt at cockblocking her brother, complains that she doesn’t know anyone there and isn’t sure what to do (me_irl). Peter, being a thirsty, thirsty boy, directs her to the kitchen, where some girls are serving cake.
Charlie eats the cake, but begins to have an allergic reaction to the walnuts in it. She seeks out Peter, and asks him to help. Unfortunately, due to the price of epipens going up another 600% (fucking Mylan), they don’t have a spare with them. Peter decides the best course of action is to drive Charlie to the hospital. On the way there, Charlie sticks her head out the window to get more air, and gets decapitated on a telephone pole after Peter swerves to avoid roadkill. Peter, in shock, drives back to his house, parks the car, and goes to bed.
Part 2: Kids See Ghosts See Kids
The next morning, Annie discovers the body in the car and throws a tantrum on her bedroom floor, repeatedly begging for death (also me_irl). The family holds a memorial service for Charlie. Later, the Leighs have a tense dinner together, culminating in Annie and Peter fighting. Annie drives to grief counseling, but decides against going inside. She begins to drive away, but a crazy woman runs in front of her car. The woman (Joan) claims to recognize her from the last session she went to (which was like months ago, btw), and gives Annie her address.
Annie goes to Joan’s apartment, where the two talk in more detail. Annie describes an incident that happened a few years back, in which, while sleepwalking, she covered her kids in paint thinner and nearly lit them on fire. Shockingly, this created tension in the family, specifically with Peter, who became scared of her after the fact. Annie is extremely defensive about this, refusing to take on any blame and calling her kids’ reactions unreasonable. Joan just kind of sits there.
Later, Annie runs into Joan again in the parking lot of an arts supply store. Joan ecstatically tells her of a group seance she went to, in which the medium was able to call upon the spirits of people from previous centuries. Annie, while skeptical, agrees to try it out. At the apartment, Joan explains that a successful seance involves a candle, a glass, an item belonging to the deceased, everyone being in the same room, thoughts, and prayers. After some weird shit happens, Annie begins to leave, but Joan gives her the ritual instructions and the candle in case she wants to try it on her own (free samples boiiiii).
In one of the most hilarious improv sketches I’ve seen on film, a distressed Annie runs around the house, waking up Peter and Steve. She leads them downstairs, where she erratically explains that she wants to perform a seance for Charlie. The two are both annoyed, but decide to indulge her. She does the glass trick, which upsets Peter, and tries to get Charlie to communicate with them. Annie loses lucidity and begins to speak like Charlie, distressing the other two, along with the family dog, Maxine. Steve puts a stop to the Seance.
Part 3: Evenin’, Demons
In class, Peter sees two beams of light run across the ceiling, and slams his head into a desk. Annie, working on a model, gets a call from Steve, informing her of the incident, scolding her for convincing their son that he’s being haunted, and hangs up. Annie then calls him back, tells him not to hang up on her, and hangs up on him. Annie gets another call from the gallery, causing her to fly into a fit of rage and destroy all of her art pieces. She then gets lead into the attic, where she discovers her mother’s headless corpse, along with a demonic symbol painted on the wall.
Steve returns to the house with an unconscious Peter, and takes him to his room. Annie shows Steve the contents of the attic, leading him to accuse her of digging up her mother’s grave and placing it there. Annie asks Steve to burn the sketch book, but he refuses. She takes the book from him and throws it into the fire herself, causing him to spontaneously combust and burn to ash.
Peter wakes up, and Annie’s body is hovering in the shadow on the wall behind him. She flies past him out the room, leading him to investigate. Downstairs, he discovers his father’s dead body, and a naked old man stands in the doorway behind him. Annie comes out of the corner, chasing him up the stairs. Peter locks himself in the attic, where he discovers a candle arrangement with a picture of him in the middle. His mother teleports above him, and begins to floss her neck off with a piano wire. Turning around, Peter sees a few naked cultists watching him, sufficiently giving him a reason to nope the fuck out of there, and jumps out the window.
After laying in the garden for a few minutes, Peter (ostensibly possessed by a demon) gets up. He walks into the tree house, on the floor of which lie a bunch of naked old people doing yoga. In the back stands a statue comprised of C-3PO’s body, and Charlie’s severed head at the top with long spikes sticking out of it. (Presumably this is why Joan was at the art supplies store earlier). In front of Peter, the decapitated corpses of his family members are bent down in worship. Joan puts a crown on Peter’s head, welcoming the demon Paimon and pledging fealty to him. The film ends on a wide shot of the tree house resembling a model with the cultists chanting “Hail, Paimon.”
Sometime before Annie was born, Ellen started a satanist cult, whose ultimate goal was to resurrect Paimon, one of eight kings of hell. In an old satanic history book, they figured out that whomever conjures Paimon will be the recipient of “riches, bitches, and Nintendo Switches.” In order to summon Paimon, a human host must be brought to their “lowest point” and expelled, so that the demon can take over. Additionally, Paimon— being a sexist pig who believes in a gender binary— demands a male body as a vessel. The first person the cult tries to use is Annie’s father, but all their shit just causes him to have a psychotic break and starve himself to death. They try the same with Annie’s brother, but he hangs himself, saying that Ellen was trying to “put people inside him” (people, in this case, referring to spooky demons).
Annie is pressured by her mother to have a child, and eventually gets pregnant with Peter. She’s reticent to keep the baby, and attempts numerous times to have a miscarriage, but fails. She has the child, but decides to keep him away from her mother. Later, when Annie has her second, she lets Ellen back into her life. L-dog becomes possessive of Charlie, spending lots of time with her, and even breastfeeding? her herself (don’t ask). However, she constantly bemoans Charlie’s gender, wishing that she’d been a boy. (She even knits a little floor mat with “Charles” written on it.)
The symbol that appears throughout the movie is the actual seal of Paimon, seen here:
The words that appear written on the walls of the house are various references to occult lore and other ritualistic elements. In the context of the film, they might be words of power that allow the spirits into the house. Or maybe the cultists are just gatekeeping. Who knows? (This video does a pretty good job covering everything.)
Later, when Peter is driving back from the party, the telephone pole that lops Charlie’s head off has the symbol carved in, probably implying that the cult somehow arranged for her death. When Joan is performing the seance in front of Annie, I believe she calls her “grandson” “Louie.” This would be a reference to “Lucifer,” implying that she’s actually summoning Satan. I’d just like to point out that the same trick was done by a game called Pony Island (and probably other stuff too). D e r i v a t i v e.
Annie does the seance in her own house, which either summons Charlie’s ghost who possesses her, or a demon who pretends to be Charlie’s ghost who posseses her? Not really sure. Anyway, Peter starts getting haunted by a ghost thing (again, either Charlie or fake Charlie), who follows him around at school. He gets stalked by various cultists, who chant things at him in an attempt to expel his soul from his body.
When Annie and Steve burn the sketch book, the demon spirit gets released, kills Steve, and possesses Annie. The scenes in which she’s floating/chasing Peter around the house/killing herself all happen during said possession. At the point where Peter jumps out the window and lands in the garden, he’s at his “lowest point,” (both figuratively, and literally), and is ready for daddy Paimon to come on over.
All the people that he walks past on the way to the treehouse are other cultists spectating the ritual. Why they’re naked I’m not quite sure, but whatever. Joan crowns him as king, implying that Paimon has fully taken over Peter’s body, and is now manifested on earth. To see what happens next, I guess we’ll need to wait for Hereditary 2: The Next Generation.
Annie’s artwork, initially presented as a red herring for the root cause of the film’s events, is actually nothing more than an attempt at taking back control of her chaotic life. She presents events through a series of miniature models, so that she’s able to view them objectively. Similarly, the family itself, whose house is presented in a certain visual style (more on that later), is a model for the cultists. The cultists spend the entire movie on the outside looking in, implying they have a level of external control up until the last scene, in which they put themselves into the tree house, showing that they are now fully subservient to the evil entity they’ve summoned. Or something like that.
The acting in this movie was pretty great across the board. Toni Collette showed a ton of emotional range, Milly Shapiro was creepy as fuck, and Alex Wolff nailed the “confused stoner” look. I will say that Ann Dowd was a little over the top for me, but that may just be because her other roles (Aunt Lydia/ Patti Levin) were both pretty crazy, so I guess I’m used to it. Plus, given her role in the film, I guess it makes sense that she’s a little over-enthusiastic.
The family dynamic in this movie is also really natural. Given the weird history and all of the stuff that happens in the events of the film, it still seems like a normal family trying to keep it together. While there were a few times where I thought that they were kind of going over the top, they still brought it back to the point where it was pretty reasonable. Another thing that I liked here was that, while the all the actors had decent chemistry, they also had a level of distance to them, which the film did a pretty good job explaining. Often in movies the actors will overcompensate for not having a realistic family dynamic by kind of being overly affectionate towards each other, but Hereditary struck a nice balance.
Visually, the production team also did a great job making the characters look the part. The makeup under Charlie’s eyes gave her kind of a Binding Of Isaac look. Peter was greasy as hell throughout the entire movie, which I guess adds to the unkempt high schooler esthetic. The hair and makeup done for Annie was also on point. She went from looking pretty normal near the start, to a total mess near the end.
One thing that my boy Jacob noted, which I completely agree with, is how normal everyone in this movie looked. The Leigh family, Joan, the other kids at Peter’s school, all looked pretty average by Hollywood standards. And that’s not an insult to anyone in the cast, it was just refreshing to see people in movies that actually look like real people you’d see on the street. Given the plethora of recent horror movies with super attractive lead actors, I like that they went for a much more subdued look.
This movie had one of the tightest scripts I can recall in recent memory. Pretty much every major plot development was foreshadowed or preempted in some sort of way. At the same time, lots of the little hints are really really subtle. Important details are often said quietly, in the midst of some larger, unrelated conversation, or appear as inconsequential throwaway lines. In fact, during the initial viewing, people might be underwhelmed at how slowly the film is paced. After finishing the movie and reflecting on all the statements, however, it becomes much easier to see how much effort was put into crafting the script to be as solid as it was.
There were some scenes which were kind of unintentionally awkward or funny. I don’t think this was so much a product of bad acting or writing, rather just the natural interactions between characters played out that way. I actually appreciated the numerous instances in this film where the characters were confused or just totally out of sync, as that made it seem more natural than everyone just being terrified of one specific entity.
Another great thing about the dialogue was how much it reinforced the family dynamic, and kept it stable for most of the runtime. There was one scene where Annie is mad at Peter, and begins saying some really savage shit to him. While it was happening, I was kind of taken aback, as I thought it was somewhat unreasonable for a mother to be yelling this at her teenage son, despite the circumstances surrounding it. Near the back end of the argument, she kind of qualifies it in a way that makes her seem a lot more reasonable, and made me sympathize more with her character instead of disliking her. As the argument is about to escalate, Steve then shuts it down to prevent more fighting. That, to me, is how you do a tense family situation in a realistic way.
This movie had some of the most clever cinematography I’ve seen in a film. Lots of the shots were set up to look like a scene in a model house. There was a ton of deep focus, and many of the angles were flat and straight-on, so that you could usually see the entirety of the room that they were in.
This movie also had lots of really slow pans, sometimes going in an arc around the room. Rarely, if ever, did subject matter enter the frame. Rather, the frame was shifted in such a way that it would then include certain elements.
There was also some really cool tricks with the lighting. For instance, there are a few wide shots of the family home at night, which then quickly cut to daytime. This effect makes it look as if the house itself is a model in a room, and a light switch is being flipped on and off.
There were some other cool shots peppered throughout the movie. The opening scene, where a camera pans super slowly around a room before settling on a model house, zooming in, and transitioning into an actual shot of a bedroom looked really, really dope. There was a scene later where Annie is walking down a hallway, and she’s initially upside-down before crossing the camera-line, at which point she’s just normally walking away from the camera. At some points I felt like Ari and Pawel (the DP) were just flexing on the audience.
The one visual effect that I thought was kind of weak was the fire. There are a few scenes in the movie where people kind of get covered in fire, and it looked pretty fake.
Overall, I think that the production value on Hereditary was just right. Lots of recent horror movies (mainly those produced by Blumhouse pictures), have sub-million dollar budgets, and end up looking kind of bland or underwhelming. Hereditary, which cost 10m, strikes a pretty good balance with looking really, really nice without being overproduced and silly.
The one thing in the film which I basically took no notice of was the score. Music kind of faded in and out of scenes, but I don’t think it really had a noticeable impact on the film. Most of the “scary” scenes were pretty quiet, and the movie didn’t really have any jumpscares, so music was mainly just used to build atmosphere in between the big events. I will say that there were a few times, mainly near the beginning of the film, where the music was kind of distracting. The opening shot, which looks really nice but isn’t really inherently creepy, has this kind of grating music thrown over it to build tension. If anything, I think Hereditary was trying to too hard to be a horror movie at certain points, which took away from the other artistic merits of the film.
The sound design in this movie was kinda clever, too. There was one scene where someone’s head gets cut off off-camera, and there’s a half-second delay between when the decapitation happens and the noise of the head hitting the floor. The movie also did a pretty good job of avoiding randomly throwing in stock sound effects, which is something that horror movies have an annoying habit of doing.
After walking out of the theater, I was pretty underwhelmed with Hereditary. The movie wasn’t nearly as scary or intense as lots of reviewers had made it out to be, and some of the scenes I found to be really awkward or funny were still fresh in my mind. I was still really impressed with some of the technical aspects, but the movie as a whole just didn’t seem to live up to all of the hype. While talking to the people I saw it with after the fact, I was ready to rate it somewhere in the mid to high 6’s, and get on with my life.
However, after reflecting on the movie for the few days after I saw it (as well as spending way too long writing out this review), I realized a lot of the initially weak elements had more behind them than I had initially caught on to. I’m not going to run out and say Hereditary is some sort of brilliant masterpiece, but the thing has a pretty good amount of depth. It’s clear that everyone involved in the production tried really hard to make a great movie. Given that Ari Aster wrote and directed this movie, I’m really excited to see what he decides to make next. All in all, this might actually be the best horror movie I’ve ever seen.
Good for: Horror fans, Yankee Candle
Bad for: People with low spook tolerance
Bod R8s: 7/8