Saturday, July 7, 2018

It Came From The Cineplex: Hereditary

Hereditary was written and directed by Ari Aster.

Aster previously wrote and directed several short films you've never heard of. Hereditary is his first theatrical movie.

Hereditary is a pretty impressive debut. I didn't know what to make of it when I first saw it, as it was so disjointed and off-kilter that I wasn't quite sure what I'd just watched. The movie stuck with me though, as I was still thinking about it days after I'd seen it (which rarely if ever happens these days).

It's a very layered film, featuring many scenes that are seemingly unimportant, but become significant the more you think about them.

Thematically it's VERY similar to Rosemary's Baby, and to a lesser extent The VVitch. There're probably many other influences in there as well, that I just don't recognize. Now that I think about it, it definitely feels like three or four movies mashed together into one.

Unfortunately the movie's not the least bit scary, despite what all the promotional material would have you believe. It IS extremely unsettling and disturbing though, which is even better. In fact it's so intense at times that it's actually hard to watch.

Hereditary has a VERY odd story structure, which doesn't completely work. It presents itself as a psychological horror film about a woman's slow descent into madness, and the resulting disintegration of her family. Turns out that's not what the movie's about at all. The REAL plot doesn't actually kick in until the final fifteen minutes!

On the plus side, this bizarre framework kept me guessing all through the movie, as I was trying to figure out where the hell it was headed. On the negative side, this doesn't give the real story the room it needs to breathe and develop, making it feel almost inconsequential. It definitely could have benefited from one more pass at the script.

Credit where credits's due though— Hereditary may not be perfect, but at least it isn't a sequel or remake.

Earlier this year in Australia, the Hereditary trailer was accidentally played before a screening of the kid flick Peter Rabbit. This caused much wailing and pants-wetting, as panicked parents rushed their precious snowflakes out of the theater before their delicate psyches were permanently scarred.

Said an audience member, “It was dreadful. Very quickly you could tell this was not a kid’s film. Parents were yelling at the projectionist to stop, covering their kids’ eyes and ears. A few went out to get a staff member but she was overwhelmed and didn’t really know what to do. Some parents fled the cinema with their kids in tow.”

I love that story...

So far the film's grossed $61 million worldwide against its minuscule $10 million budget, making it a decent box office success.


The Plot:
Meet the Graham family: Steve (played by Gabriel Byrne), the level headed father, Annie (played by Toni Collette), the unstable artistic mother, teenaged son Peter (played by Alex Wolff) and creepy young daughter Charlie (played by Milly Shapiro). As the film opens, they're preparing for the funeral of Annie's late mother Ellen, the cold and controlling matriarch of the family.

Annie delivers the eulogy at the funeral, suddenly veering off into a bizarre tirade against her mother. During the service, the sullen and distant Charlie clucks her tongue while she draws disturbing pictures in her sketchbook. Steve freaks out when he sees Charlie eating a candy bar, as she has a deadly peanut allergy. She assures him it's nut-free, and chomps solemnly away (PLOT POINT!).

After the funeral, Annie notices Charlie's acting more withdrawn than usual, and assumes she's saddened by her grandmother's death. For some reason, Annie says Ellen always wished Charlie was a boy (PLOT POINT!), which is an odd thing to tell a little girl. Charlie asks who'll take care of her now that her grandmother's dead, which disturbs Annie.

Annie enters her studio, where she creates intricately detailed miniature dioramas. She finishes a piece illustrating her late mother dying in hospice (!). Distracted, she starts going through a box of Ellen's things. She stops when she sees a ghostly vision of her mother in the studio.

The next day, Charlie's sitting in class when a bird flies into the window and dies. At recess, Charlie finds the dead bird, cuts off its head and stuffs it in her pocket. As one does in that situation. She looks up and sees a woman across the street waving at her (PLOT POINT!).

That night, the cemetery informs Steve that Ellen's grave has been desecrated. He decides not to tell Annie about it. Annie says she's going to a movie, but secretly attends a grief counseling support group. She's reluctant to talk at first, but then begins blurting out ever more shocking personal details about her and her family, including the fact that her father and brother killed themselves. She says her mother killed herself as well, likely due to the fact that she had both D.I.D. and dementia.

Charlie begins sleeping in a treehouse in the backyard, where she builds bizarre little figures and sculptures. She tops off one with the bird head she harvested earlier that day. As she admires her work, she sees a strange light pass through the treehouse (PLOT POINT!).

Some time later Peter asks Annie if he can take her car to a party. Annie asks if there'll be drinking there, and he lies and says no. Annie asks him to take his sister Charlie, I guess in an effort to bring her out of her shell. Peter reluctantly agrees to take her. 

At the party, the creepy and withdrawn Charlie clings to Peter's side, cramping his style. He spots a group of teens baking in the kitchen (?) and tells Charlie to go talk with them. Freed from his little sister, he goes upstairs and smokes pot with his crush Bridget and her friends. Charlie grabs a piece of chocolate cake and starts chowing down. Unfortunately the cake contains peanuts, and she begins having an allergic reaction.

Peter spots Charlie choking, and carries her to the car. He speeds to the hospital, telling her to hold on. Unable to breathe, Charlie rolls down the window and sticks her head out. Suddenly Peter sees a deer in the road, and swerves to avoid it. He sideswipes a utility pole, which brutally decapitates Charlie. Holy. Crap.

Peter slams on the brakes and sits in the car for several minutes, refusing to look in the back seat. In shock, he slowly drives home, goes upstairs and crawls into bed. The next morning, Annie announces she's going into town for art supplies, and shrieks when she sees her daughter's headless body sitting in the back seat of the SUV.

Cut to Charlie's funeral, where an inconsolable Annie wails and collapses to the ground. Later Steve looks through Charlie's sketchbook and is horrified by what he sees. Peter has a panic attack at school and shakily rides his bike home.

Later, Annie drives to another grief meeting, but changes her mind and starts to turn around. She's stopped by Joan, a woman from the support group. She hands Annie her phone number and urges her to call any time.

Annie begins sleeping in the treehouse, I guess in an effort to try and be "near" Charlie. Peter hears a clucking noise in his room, and sees a vision of Charlie in the corner.

Several days later, Annie visits Joan at her apartment, and unloads her emotional baggage onto her. She tells Joan she's a sleepwalker, and once doused Peter and Charlie with paint thinner and was about to drop a lit match on them before waking up in the nick of time (!). She says her relationship with her children was never quite the same after that. I can't imagine why.

Annie begins a slow and steady descent into madness, going so far as to build a diorama of accident scene that killed Charlie (!). The family then has a tense and unpleasant dinner, in which Annie finally comes out and blames Peter for Charlie's death. He correctly points out that it was her idea for him to take her in the first place. Annie storms off, as the family slowly disintegrates.

Annie runs into Joan, who breathlessly tells her about a seance she attended. Annie's skeptical, but Joan insists she come back to her place so she can demonstrate. Once there, Joan conjures up the spirit of her late grandson, who moves a cup across a table and draws on a chalkboard. Annie's flabbergasted, and realizes she can use this technique to talk with Charlie. Joan tells her all she has to do is use a personal item belonging to her daughter, recite a few magic words and make sure her entire family's in the house during the seance.

Annie's sanity continues to unravel, as she rushes home and tries the incantation, using Charlie's sketchbook. Later that night, Annie wakes Steve and Peter, telling them both she's contacted Charlie. She drags them out of bed and demonstrates, seemingly becoming possessed by the spirit of her dead daughter. A horrified Steve shakes her out of the trance, as Peter begins sobbing uncontrollably.

The next day, Peter's in class and sees the same mysterious light Charlie saw. He turns his head and sees his reflection in a window, and is disturbed to see it smiling at him. Back home, an unhinged Annie destroys her studio and everything in it.

That night Peter has another vision of Charlie, as two hands reach out from under his bed and choke him. He wakes up to find Annie's sleepwalking and trying to kill him again. She comes to and begs Peter not to tell Steve what she did. She says she accidentally woke something dangerous by trying to contact Charlie, and she's the only one who can stop it.

Annie grabs Charlie's sketchbook and throws it in the fireplace. Unfortunately her arm catches fire at the same time as the book. She fishes the book out of the flame and puts it out, which douses her arm as well. She realizes she can't destroy the sketchbook, and returns to Joan for help. Annie's shocked to see Joan's apartment is decorated with various witchcraft items, along with a photo of Peter inside a ceremonial symbol.

Now that the movie's three-fourths over, the actual plot begins to kick in. Annie returns home and googles the symbol from Joan's apartment. She discovers it's associated with Paimon, a demonic king of Hell. She roots through her late mother's belongings again, and finds photos of her with Joan, proving they were both in the same witchy coven. Apparently the followers of Paimon are attempting to conjure him into a male body, which will bring them vast wealth or something(?).

For some reason, Annie goes up in the attic, which is filled with clouds of flies and a dreadful smell. She roots around and is shocked to find the headless corpse of her late mother (solving the mystery of Ellen's desecrated grave).

At school, Peter's in class when he hears Charlie clucking her tongue. He suddenly becomes possessed, and violently smashes his head against his desk, breaking his nose.

Steve brings Peter home from school. Annie couldn't care less about him, as she tells Steve that her mother's decapitated corpse is in the attic. She shows him the photos of Ellen with Joan, and says she cursed the family when she tried to contact Charlie. Steve doesn't believe a word she says, but goes into the attic to humor her. He sees the body and accuses Annie of digging up her own mother.

Annie tries to get Steve to burn Charlie's sketchbook, but he refuses. She throws it in the fire, even though she knows it'll kill her. For some reason Steve instantly bursts into flame instead of her (?) and dies.

Peter wakes up and wanders through the house, looking for his parents. He finds his father's charred corpse, and sees a vision of his dead grandmother. A possessed Annie begins chasing him, and he runs up into the attic to hide. Annie bashes her head against the attic door, desperately trying to get in.

Inside the attic, Peter sees candles and other witchcraft paraphernalia, along with a photo of himself with the eyes scribbled out. He hears a noise and sees Annie hovering above him, sawing through her neck with a cord while she stares at him.

Suddenly Peter's confronted by the corpses of his family. He leaps out the attic window and dies when he hits the ground. The glowing light enters his body, and he slowly gets up. He sees his mother's headless corpse float into the treehouse (!).

Peter climbs into the treehouse, and sees a coven of naked Paimon worshippers inside. Charlie's decapitated head sits on top of a statue of Paimon. Annie and Ellen's headless bodies bow at each side of the statue. Joan appears, and places a crown on Peter's head, and welcomes him as the resurrected spirit of Paimon.


• Doesn't it seem odd that Ellen (the grandmother) is a major character and presence in the film, but dies before it starts?

• The movie opens with a very cool shot, as we see one of Annie's dioramas. Specifically a detailed recreation of the Graham's house.

The camera slowly zooms in toward the house, focusing on a tiny replica of Peter's bedroom.

Suddenly Steve bursts into the room, carrying Peter's suit.

He then wakes up his son, telling him to get ready for the funeral, as the miniature room transitions into the real thing.

The whole scene's done as a single tracking shot, and the switch from the model home to full size house is absolutely seamless. Well done!

I'm assuming the filmmakers didn't include this shot just to show off, and the scene has some symbolic or deep-seated psychological meaning, but I have no idea what it might be.

By the way, the film's peppered with various shots of the treehouse and the exterior of the Graham home, shot with a "tilt shift" camera, which makes them look like miniatures. These shots ad to the film's sense of unease, as the audience is never quite sure if they're looking at a model or the real thing. 

• Speaking of Annie's models, they serve a subtle, psychological purpose in Hereditary (as just about everything in the film does). All through the movie, Annie's fragile mental state is in constant danger of collapsing. As a result of this, she's compelled to make miniature dioramas of the major events in her life, such as the death of her mother. She even makes a model of Charlie's grisly decapitation accident!

Why the hell would she want to do something like that? Because recreating these traumatic scenes is a release for her. Plus building and staging the dioramas gives her a feeling of control over these events she can't change. In effect she's like a god who has power over her tiny world.

It's a pretty cool concept that's flawlessly executed.

• Alex Wolff must have one hell of an agent. Somehow he managed to get top billing in the film, even over Toni Collette, who's the ostensible star. Strange!

• As a general rule, I hate it when a trailer misleads the audience, promising one film and delivering a completely different one. The Hereditary trailer is a prime example of this. It's edited in a way that makes it look like Ellen dies and her spirit begins possessing Charlie. It also implies that Charlie's a major presence throughout the entire movie.

In reality, none of that's true, as Ellen doesn't do any possessing, Charlie shockingly dies at the end of the first act and everything's part of a plot to resurrect Paimon.

Ordinarily I'd be livid at such a deceptive trailer. But Hereditary is a film that works best if you walk in knowing absolutely nothing about it. In this case the misleading trailer actually worked to its advantage.

• Speaking of misdirection: the trailer's edited to make it look like this is a scene of Ellen's funeral. It's actually Charlie's!

In fact if you look at the scene from the actual movie, you can clearly see the mourners are standing over a tiny coffin. One that's just the right size for a headless thirteen year old girl!

• One last thing about the trailer before I finally move on. At one point, Annie says her mother Ellen wouldn't let her breastfeed Charlie, and insisted on doing it herself (which is downright weird). For some reason, Annie even creates a miniature diorama commemorating this bizarre bit of family history. 

There's even a shot of this diorama in the trailer, showing Ellen preparing to nurse Baby Charlie. Note that in the trailer version, Ellen's elderly breasts are mercifully covered by her nightgown.

When this scene appears in the actual film though, Ellen's left breast is most definitely exposed. Obviously there're rules against female nudity in movie trailers, but I guess that goes for DOLL boobs as well.

• During Ellen's eulogy, Annie looks out at the assembled mourners and says, "It's heartening to see so many strange, new faces here today. I know my mom would be very touched. And probably a little suspicious."

This is a brilliant and subtle little detail that doesn't become significant until after you've seen the film and had time to think about it. 

The "strange, new faces" at Ellen's funeral are all her fellow members of the Cult Of Paimon, who've come to pay their respects! Of course Annie's never seen them before, because at this point in the film she has no idea her mom was "Queen" of a cult!

• After Ellen's death, Annie sneaks out of the house and attends a grief counseling meeting. She's too shy and embarrassed to talk at first, so she just sits silently and listens. Then suddenly she starts spewing a torrent of lurid and appalling details about her family, including the fact that her father starved himself to death, her brother hung himself because he thought his mother "put a person in his head," and more.

I'd have given anything if the camera had slowly pulled back from Annie, revealing the other members of the group slowly and discreetly backing away from her in horror and sneaking out of the gym!

• I feel bad saying this about a young girl, but Milly Shapiro, who plays Charlie, is one creepy-ass looking kid. There's something unsettling and... off about her, which I'm sure is just what every awkward adolescent girl wants to hear.

• There's a definite decapitation theme running through this movie. Charlie cuts off a dead bird's head to use in a craft project. Later she's decapitated in a ghastly accident. Annie finds Ellen's headless, rotting corpse in her attic. And finally Annie saws off her own head at the end of the film.

I have no idea what all this means, but it's most definitely a thing in the film.

• I was definitely NOT expecting this movie to kill off a thirteen year old girl in such a brutal and horrific manner, and especially not at the end of the first act. After Charlie's death, I sat in the theater honestly wondering where the hell the story could possibly go from there. 

It was actually a good feeling (well, you know what I mean) not knowing what was going to happen next, as most of the time I can see every single plot point coming from a mile off. 

Now I know how audiences felt in 1960 when they saw Psycho for the first time!

• Charlie's accident scene was masterfully shot and (pardon the expression) executed. The director ratcheted up the tension by showing Charlie panicking as she suffocated in the back seat of the SUV, as Peter desperately tried to get her to the hospital. The audience is so focused on her plight, that we're completely blindsided when she's gruesomely decapitated.

But the scene doesn't stop there! Immediately after Charlie's killed, we see a long shot of the SUV as it screeches to a halt and sits motionless, for what seems like a full minute of screen time. Director Ari Aster holds interminably on the scene, as the audience waits for confirmation that what they think they just saw really happened. 

We then get an extreme closeup of Peter, who stares straight ahead with the realization that his life just changed forever. He then slowly drives home, enters his house, climbs into bed fully clothed and lays there all night, hoping against hope that this is all a ghastly nightmare and he'll wake up any second.

It's a brilliant scene, one that manages to be extremely disturbing and upsetting without containing a single drop of gore. By focusing the camera on Peter and his reaction, Charlie's death becomes much more shocking than if it would if it were actually shown. It's an impressive achievement.

By the way, I've read online comments calling Peter an asshole and a coward for "hiding in bed" and leaving his poor sister's headless body in the back of the SUV all night. Sigh... HE WAS IN SHOCK, you nimrods! He's not a terrible person; he was simply overwhelmed by the situation and had no idea what to do next. His actions actually felt pretty realistic to me, as it seems like something a teen would actually do in such a case.

• As upsetting and disturbing as the accident was, it couldn't hold a candle to Annie's reaction to Charlie's death. She collapses to the floor in unimaginable pain and grief, wailing that she wants to die. The director holds on the shot for an uncomfortably long time, and it was legitimately hard to watch.

Kudos to Toni Collette for turning in such a realistic, raw and fearless performance. In that instant I honestly believed her pain was real.

If Collette doesn't at least get nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, than the Academy might as well just close up shop!

• I knew from the second she opened her mouth that Joan was up to no good, and was secretly manipulating Annie. That said, I did NOT foresee that she was part of a coven attempting to resurrect one of the Kings Of Hell.

• When the Paimon hooey finally started up in the final minutes of the film, I assumed the director pulled it all directly out of his ass. Nope! Turns out Paimon is a real demon! Well, not real, but you know what I mean.

Paimon (sometimes spelled "Paymon") is a king of Hell who commands two hundred legions— half from the Angelic Order and the rest from the Order Of Powers, whatever that is. He usually appears as a man with a woman's face (!), riding a camel and wearing a headdress made of precious stones.

Paimon has knowledge of past and future events (well we ALL have knowledge of past events, don't we?) and will truthfully answer any question asked of him. He can revel hidden treasures (which is why the cult wants to resurrect him so badly), fly and reanimate the dead.

As you can see in the image above, Paimon even has his own logo sacred symbol.

Note that this exact symbol appears all over the movie. Ellen's wearing the symbol on a chain as she lies in her casket, and Annie's seen wearing one just like it when she delivers the eulogy.

So kudos to Ari Aster for googling demons, and reading all about Paimon!

• At one point Annie enters Peter's room and sees he's being eaten alive by ants. She screams and wakes up, as she's been sleepwalking. Peter asks her what she's doing, and she tells him she tried to abort him before he was born. She then wakes up again, but this time in her own bed. 

Yep, it's the old "dream within a dream" trope. I've had plenty of dreams in my life, but I've never, ever, not even once dreamed I was dreaming. In fact I'm confident that NO ONE has ever done this. It's a bit of screenwriting bullsh*t dreamed up by Hollywood, in an effort to trick audiences.

• For the majority of the runtime, it appears that the film is about Annie's slow descent into madness, her fear that she inherited her condition from her mother and may pass it to her son and the disintegration of her family.

Then at literally the last minute, the movie starts up its REAL plot, one which involves cults, witchcraft and demonic possession. 

The switch is so sudden and abrupt you could get whiplash from watching it. And this isn't just a little plot twist, like "the butler did it." Hereditary pretty much starts up a whole new film in its final fifteen minutes.

Unexpected? Sure. Shocking? Absolutely. Well handled? Definitely not. 

Unfortunately the real plot arrives so late that it's never given the room to breathe, or a chance for it to develop. The audience is too exhausted by this point to have to pay attention to ANOTHER plot. I couldn't believe they were troweling on all the Paimon stuff in the final ten minutes, and was sure it was all another of Annie's nightmares, and she'd wake up any second.

It's not that I hated the Paimon ending— in fact I kind of liked it. It was definitely unexpected, which is always a plus in my book. I just wish it had more of a buildup, to give the audience time to properly buy into it.

• There's a lot to unpack in the final ten minutes of the movie, as it goes completely off the rails and deep into "What The Hell?" territory. So much so that it's hard to understand exactly what happened. For the record, here's my take on the ending.

Ellen and her cult were trying to resurrect Paimon for many, many years. She even tried using her son as a vessel for the demon, which prompted him to kill himself because his mother "put voices in his head."

Ellen then wanted Paimon to possess Peter, but Annie put her foot down and wouldn't let her mother near her son. When Charlie was born, Annie relented for some reason and let Ellen have access to her. Ellen then began breastfeeding her own granddaughter, which is just downright wrong.

Somehow Paimon then possessed Charlie, possibly while she was still in the womb. This explains why she was so weird and awkward. Unfortunately this wouldn't do, as Paimon's a male demon and couldn't go around occupying a female body.

I'm not sure if Ellen's death was part of the long-term plan, or it just happened. Either way, Joan then took over for Ellen, gaining Annie's trust and manipulating her while carrying out the plan.

The cult somehow used its power to orchestrate Charlie's gruesome death. We know this because we see the symbol of Paimon carved into the utility pole that decapitates Charlie.

Once Charlie was dead, the cult planned for him to move into Peter's body. But first, Joan told Annie about a seance she performed, in which she contacted her late grandson. She gave Annie a book of magic words to recite, so she could contact Charlie. In reality, the words didn't conjure up Charlie's spirit, but Paimon's! Clever!

Annie's then seemingly possessed by some kind of evil spirit— most likely Paimon— as she crawls around on the ceiling and chases Peter into the attic. She then saws off her own head, which probably isn't physically possible, but whatever.

Annie's headless body floats into the treehouse, where it joins the noggin-less corpse of her mother. Peter kills himself, and is finally possessed by Paimon. He enters the treehouse, where Joan and her fellow cultists place a crown on his head.

Your mileage may vary, but that's how I saw the ending.

Hereditary is an extremely unsettling psychological horror film, filled with disturbing scenes that are genuinely hard to watch and will stick with you long after it's over. It features top notch performances by the entire cast, especially Toni Collette, who deserves an Oscar for her role of a woman slowly going mad. The best thing about the movie is that I literally had no idea what was going to happen next, which is a rarity these days. It flies off the rails in its final minutes though, as it tries to start up an entirely new movie. If you can get past that, you'll probably enjoy it. I give it a B+.

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