Posted by Preeti Nangal
Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Hereditary (2018) is a movie that might be misunderstood, if not less understood, by many cine-goers. But the fault does not lie with the audience. I would, as a die-hard horror fan, put the blame on misleading marketing and hyperbole reviews. The movie is not a “new generation’s The Exorcist” neither is it one of the most scary movies as some of the critics would like us to believe. Hereditary will not “spin heads even more savagely” as it is not a run-of-the-mill horror movie full of jump scares but a ‘slow-burn’ that explores grief and trauma through the lens of nightmarish supernatural forces.
Hereditary is premised on this question: what happens when your vulnerabilities are invoked by a haunting and what happens when that vulnerability itself becomes the haunted? As per its official description, the Graham family comes face to face with uncanny revelations about its matrilineal ancestory after the death of its matriarch, Ellen Leigh. As much as this description barely scratches the surface of what those revelations are, and in fact which realm of the cosmic universe they belong to, I find the word ‘matriarch’ fascinating. Ellen is not just a mother or a grandmother, but the head of the family, and perhaps more.
As we go further into the depths of the movie, we realise that Ellen was also the head of the Paimon-following cult. Her death, which I would like to see as not just a mere natural incident, but one of the many events orchestrated by the cult to serve their king, Paimon (and aid him in finding a vessel of a ‘healthy male body’) so he can walk this earth among mortal-humans and shower the cult with his knowledge of science and art, and with wealth.
It is only fair to say that the matriarch was in full understanding of not only how her death was an important milestone in this ‘plot’ (a meta plot in the movie), but has fore-planned the events that will unfold after her death (as is hinted in the short message she leaves for her daughter, Annie (Toni Collette) inside a book. It is, in fact, a pervasive narrative technique in the movie where several of its decisive events are executed off-screen and the viewers only see the effect and influence of those events on the Graham family.
The above details become interesting especially in the horror genre where women are typically portrayed as scream-queens, damsels-in-distress, or just victims of fatalistic forces beyond their control, and if at all they must come out a survivor, they must adhere to either enduring sadistic and voyeuristic torture, or be sexually inactive. This trend however is rapidly being subverted by some iconic horror movies, and not just in America. Movies like Alien, Carrie, The Descent, It Follows, Hush, The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Raw turn the table and push forth an aware, often empowering connection between horror and women, horror and femininity (and masculinity), and horror and gender.
The horror genre typically portrays women as scream-queens, damsels-in-distress, or just victims of fatalistic forces beyond their control.
In this light, even if the role of Ellen may be considered antagonistic, she does dictate the terms of how horror shall unveil itself in the life of her daughter. In direct contrast, we find Annie trying everything in her petty human ways to hamper the hellish symphony in order to save her family, especially her children, from being possessed. She even tries to put them on fire during one of her sleepwalking spells. Now whether the potential murder was orchestrated or not, one may produce several theories in favour of either. However, for me, this act on Annie’s part comes off as a desperate measure to save her children from the upcoming doom that she subconsciously knows she has inherited from her mother and perhaps cannot evade.
The movie also challenges the notion of family as an institution, which is often stereotyped to be nurturing and healing. Most often this idea of family is based on blood-relations but in the movie we witness a different manifestation of this ecosystem. The family that sustains itself by the end of the movie is not the one that shares a bloodline but the one that shares its belief in a cult, in a demonic king. It is this cult that witnesses fruition of its intricately plotted intentions where each individual member is guaranteed a reward by the end of their ritual unlike in a social family unit where individuals are expected to sacrifice for each other rather than demand the latter from others. Hence, the movie contrasts two ideas of sacrifice wherein it is the Graham family that eventually breaks down as it faces the family of the cult gain its ground (or, levitate, suit yourself).
The Graham family acts as a pawn in the grand scheme of things like the miniatures that Annie makes in her workshop. (Here it is important to note that not often do we see a woman working and following up on her ‘calling’ in a movie). These miniatures become a screen, a window to her subconscious mind trying in vain to get a ‘neutral’ view of her life, in reverse. She imitates the events and incidents that have already taken place, which is perhaps the only way to maintain her sanity and mental health. She attempts in vain to detach herself from the present, from the onslaught of grief by assuming a distance from her own life. However, as reality becomes too heavy to contain (in her miniatures), she breaks the miniatures apart – a metaphor for her own psychotic breakdown.
The movie also challenges the notion of family as an institution, which is often stereotyped to be nurturing and healing.
This point brings me to a caveat regarding the movie – depiction of mental health. It is all fine to take artistic licence and bring in everything possible under the sky in a movie plot, which is appreciable in Hereditary. However, some scenes in the movie have been acted out and executed so well that they can be triggering for some audience members. For example, the grief counselling meeting in the beginning of the movie is especially moving. In this scene, Annie charts out in a monologue the history of mental illness that she witnessed her mother, father and brother go through. This scene, among other iconic scenes in the movie, is essential for the plot of the movie, however, what the team of Hereditary needs to keep in mind is to release a trigger warning with each screening of its trailer, its screening in the cinemas, and also when it is released in the DVD format for people who might be susceptible to mental illness.
In all, Hereditary can be a table turner for many. In my verdict, it is a movie with a lot of potential but somehow the steam below the pan was not adequate. One may have to watch the movie more than once in order to allow it to get under one’s skin. I watched it thrice to make sense of the polarised reception of the movie among the critics and the audience.
The critics perhaps could appreciate the movie because they had no expectations to watch it with, but most of them in turn ruined it for others in their hyperbole reviews to go with the misleading marketing (selling the movie off as a horror when it does nothing to prepare the audience for the ‘slow-burn’ psychological supernatural horror). This creates a concoction of high expectations, which the movie fails to match by the time it nears its end. Hereditary works great as a metaphor, but as a movie, not so much.
Preeti Nangal did her Masters in Creative Writing from Dr. BR Ambedkar University, Delhi; and her Bachelors in English Literature from Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University. She is a freelance writer who is currently working on her first fictional novel. She is also keen to create a community of fellow-writers, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is currently working with Asia Art Archive in India, Delhi as Collection Assistant.