After the death of her controlling mother, Annie (Toni Collette) tries to carry on with her life, assembling miniatures and being a parent to her two children. Her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), is deeply anxious at school and her daughter Charlie seems sinisterly obsessed with her dead mother. Strange people appear on the periphery of the small family’s increasingly stressful existence. The mother’s legacy of oppression and madness clearly did not die with her.
Hereditary is a deeply unnerving horror film that relishes atmosphere and unease. Strange things will appear and disappear in the frame, out of focus. Bizarre encounters with strangers perpetuate a kind of anxiety reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby, whilst sinister occult symbols recall Kill List. The film has some really grizzly imagery but the real horror derives from the fear of mental illness, and specifically mental illness inherited from parents. The theme of repeated history and helplessness are explored. There’s a dreadful sense of inevitability to the breakdown of the family.
The film does also have a morbid sense of humour. As the plot progresses and certain mysteries are resolved, the film recognises the silliness of its conceit and is willing to indulge in gallows humour. The third act is often very difficult in horror films. Hereditary does well to maintain the ambiguity and tension right until the climactic scene. Some may well be disappointed by the seemingly orthodox (by horror movie standards) explanation offered in this sequence, one which does threaten to move the conversation away from mental health and towards something much more trite. However, like the best horror films I feel that there is definite room for interpretation. But no matter how you interpret the film’s final moments, it’s undeniably thrilling.
The dollhouses assembled by Annie are striking props that appear in every room of the house. The scenes within the house are filmed with a very flat blocking and lateral camera movements which create the impression that we are peering in on one of her macabre dioramas. There’s an unreality throughout that furthers the feeling that we are experiencing the inside of somebody’s head.
Performances are all excellent but Toni Collette stands out. Her neurotic and angsty portrayal of a grieving woman on the edge of her ability to cope is mesmerising. Occasionally her performance becomes comical, but such is the irreverent nature of the film, I can’t be sure this isn’t on purpose. What is certain is that her’s is a comitted performance that is powerful and frightening. Every actor is afforded the chance to be superb, even the somewhat underused Gabriel Byrne has some excellent moments of pathos.
Hereditary is a fantastic horror film that exposes anxieties around mental health and parenthood whilst also offering audience pleasing scares. The movie may falter as it leans further into the occult and away from the family dynamic, but if the elements external to the house prove to be less interesting than the twisted minds within, it can only be because these elements are so very strong.