Hereditary ★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I had an unusual reaction to this movie. Annoyance.

The filmmakers show enormous technical and creative skill. This is a well-crafted movie, with command of tone and story from the first frame to the last. No shot is wasted.

But about that story... What is its message? In particular, how is this film describing or commenting on mental illness? Horror films often use mental illness as a thematic or character point. It’s a trope. In fact, it is so routine in the genre to equate evil, violent and crazy that the genre might not exist without it. In contrast, science-fiction can usually create threats--big green aliens and such--without leaning on this regressive idea. These filmmakers are brilliant. I just wish they had put this story on a spaceship. It would have been just as scary.

Instead this is a haunted-family movie and we have the theme of mental illness and heredity right up front. Is it mental illness afflicting this family or demonic evil and possession?

There is a long scene early on with Annie (Toni Collette) visiting a grief group, describing her family's history with serious and traumatic mental illness. Director Ari Aster has called this “a conspiracy movie without exposition, told from the perspective of the people being conspired against.” Like the audience, Annie is struggling to figure out what is going on. What’s behind all this trauma? The answer she leans on is mental illness. She says her mother had DID (dissociative identity disorder) and dementia. Her father suffered psychosis and starved himself to death. Her brother suffered from schizophrenia and killed himself. In an ominous sign, her son Peter is toking up and zoning out from the first we see him and her daughter Charlie is anti-social and inhibited. Annie calls her mother “polluted” and her whole family “ruined.”

The film tips its hand in its title: All of this is hereditary. Even more: It is dead fate.

The film announces its themes and underlines them in the dialogue in Peter’s school. High-school teachers do not normally use Sophocles’ Women of Trachis as a text. Peter’s does. This is a Greek tragedy about fate, tainted blood and the doom of Heracles, who is burned alive because of his wife. (Sorry, Steve.) The doom of this family is announced. Peter is not listening and it wouldn’t matter if he was. Fate is coming.

Is mental illness a fate unto death, passed through our families? Or is what we call mental illness really the insidious work of a demon and its cultish agents in our midst?

Pardon me if I don’t care for this movie, but those seem to be its biggest questions. Are you possessed or sick? It doesn’t matter: You’re stuck in this cursed family and there’s no way out. That’s Sophocles in short. Accept your fate: You can't cope with it, you can't recover from it, you can't run from it.

There is no Epi-Pen in this family. That’s a nasty joke I didn’t catch first time around. It’s a peanut allergy that does in poor Charlie. She loves sugar but she can’t eat anything with nuts. She accidentally gets some at the party, on a knife. Her throat closes and Peter has no Epi-Pen to save her. Peanut allergies have some genetic basis.

So does haunting apparently. This movie gives a nasty twist on the haunted-house theme. It’s not a family or a place that is haunted. It’s a whole bloodline. These folks are cursed. The genetics are bad; a bad spirit is stalking this family down the generations. There’s something really nasty in this family tree. Aster--what a sick sense of humor he has--makes that literal in the final scene.

[Spoilers aplenty below…]

I was as confused as everyone by the ending. Aster snuck in a lot of clues along the way and, like Annie and Steve, we don’t piece them together in time. (Not that it would matter, though. Fate is coming.) I'm not sure I have it all clear but...: Annie’s mother, Ellen, was not mentally ill. She had invoked this Paimon demon-thing. Not just that, she bonded with it, became its ‘Queen’ and sacrificed her family to it. By that sacrifice, and with attendant riches or powers to her in return, she created a faux-monarchy, the House of Paimon (or treehouse… OK, Aster, we get it). That last scene is a grim coronation, before the court or cult, in which the line of the House of Paimon is extended another generation - whether Peter wants to wear the crown or not. The ‘title’ is passed to him.

There’s little doubt a second ‘title’ will be passed to him too: that of mental illness. He will be labelled and named “mentally ill” for the world outside that clubhouse. That’s the cult’s cover story. It’s what happened to his grandfather and uncle. It’s gruesome, but Ellen sought to confer the title, and extend the monarchy, first through her husband (I think) and then her son. Both were labelled mentally ill, or thought themselves so, and killed themselves rather than wear this crown. Paimon demanded a male heir. Without one available, Ellen passed this corruption or “ruination” (per Annie) to Charlie in infancy (by breastfeeding, it is suggested) but only until she could “get her hooks into” Peter.

The continuation of the line is all that matters, no matter what the cost. As this spirit passes from one generation to the next, trauma and violence inevitably go along with it, as they did with the doomed family of Heracles: Charlie, Steve and Annie all die violently. The tainted spirit is the only thing that lives.

Peter’s fate is sealed. He has no way out--except presumably to follow the route of his grandfather and uncle. Agents of the ‘crown’ will ensure that if he tries to pull out of this line of trauma in any other way--like going to a grief group--someone will be there to pull him back in again. Someone or something. Even when Annie tried to kill her children, to 'save’ them from this horrible fate, she was not allowed to. The providence of Paimon intervened.

This is an inversion of the family story in Genesis--with curse, not blessing. Instead of a family in a normal sense--with family a source of mutual protection and renewal--this family is cursed--despoiled, degraded, perpetually traumatized, but not destroyed. It has to continue. It has to persist. Even if Peter seeks to kill himself, the line of evil will find a way to continue.

That's a horror story to keep you up at night. Unlike most horror films, there is no light in this one--no comic relief, no hope and no countervailing power. Normally, horror sets up a good-and-evil story. This one doesn’t. It’s evil all the way down. There is no survivor, no escapee. There could be sequels, but the plot will be how Peter kills himself but the curse winds up passing to the next generation anyway. Aster is damn clever and he's probably already figured out how to do it.

I'm going to skip the sequel. This is one of the grimmest and most fatalistic movies I have ever seen. Not only that, most sequels veer into unintentional comedy and that coronation scene is already about halfway there.

Peter’s coronation falls pretty close to parody--it’s in a freaking treehouse--and I expect a lot of people laughed at the sheer absurdity of it. All the naked cult people, and poor Toni Collette sawing her head off, do make it memorable. It ends the film with a cold thrill of confusion--but see it again and try not to laugh. This is Grand Guignol: More blood and more melodrama make for a big finish, but it’s ultimately just an elaborate joke.

I'll watch a comic critique of monarchy instead: “I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.”

There's no doubt: Trauma has generational effects. Likewise, mental illness is frightening and powerful and it does have some hereditary patterns. However, we do get choice, we can fight back and heredity does not seal our fate.

The message of this movie is deeply regressive. It’s almost folkloric in its conception of mental illness and fate. We've come a long way in understanding illness. This film seems to be a needless step backward, into the oldest trope in horror. It's a beautiful package but a nasty present.

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