Blog Directory CineVerse: Devil in the DNA

Devil in the DNA

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Happy Halloween, CineVerse followers!

When your directorial debut has been described as the scariest film since The Exorcist, you know you’ve got a lot of hype to live up to. But Ari Aster’s Hereditary doesn’t have to meet or exceed that high threshold of expectation to be a modern horror masterpiece, which many believe it is. This week, our CineVerse crew held up this film to the microscope and formed the following conclusions (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

In what ways did Hereditary surprise you, defy your preconceptions, or prove satisfying?

  • This is another contemporary example of a prestige horror film, with known and talented actors and higher production values, that doesn’t resort to the predictable or cliché. We aren’t inundated with jump scares, gratuitous violence, or cheap thrills.
    • UK film reviewer Matthew Norman wrote: “…at no moment was I terrified. But terror and horror are different beasts, and Hereditary is unforgettably horrifying.”
  • The performances are uniformly outstanding, particularly Tony Colette is a mother overwhelmed by grief and trauma, as well as Milly Shapiro as her offputting daughter Charlie, Alex Wolff playing stoner misanthrope Peter, and Ann Dowd portraying the utterly believable Joan.
  • The point of view in this film is primarily subjective, and viewers are not given any more information than Annie, Charlie, or Peter. We discover the horror and insidious plot manipulating them concurrently, as they do.
    • Director Ari Aster said in an interview: “Essentially, the film is about a long-lived possession ritual that is seen from the perspective of the sacrificial lambs. So yes, we know what they know. We learn what they learn, and Ike kind of wanted to make a conspiracy film without exposition…we’re with them in their ignorance.”
  • The film kicks off brilliantly by sharing the obituary for Annie’s recently deceased mother.

Themes built into Hereditary

  • The real horrors in life are trauma and grief that is often linked to loved ones and blood relatives.
  • Family demons can be literal, not just figurative.
  • Are we a product of our environment or our hereditary?
    • Here, a possible takeaway is that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Charlie is artistic like her mother, and both she and Peter may be afflicted with some form of mental illness passed down from their mother’s side. Remember that Annie’s mother suffered from dissociative identity disorder (formerly called split personality disorder); her father, a psychotic depressive, starved himself to death; and her schizophrenic brother hanged himself. Recall, as well, that Annie admits to having attended a support group previously – possibly for the incident in which she doused her children in a flammable liquid and almost burned them to death during a sleepwalking incident. To her therapist husband Steve, Annie appears to be exhibiting perhaps obsessive-compulsive behaviors, bipolar disorder, and hallucinatory visions.
    • It’s possible to interpret what we’re seeing as visions inspired by mental illness. One reading of the film is that Annie, Charlie, and Peter all suffer from the same kind of psychological problems that cause them to see and experience things that aren’t really there except in their minds.
  • Do we have free will or is our life predetermined by fate or destiny?
    • If you take the film literally, there is a conspiracy afoot to manipulate this family to a cult’s evil ends, first instigated by Annie’s mother before she died. Her cult followers are playing the family like pawns in a game of chess.
    • Aster further said: “The (diorama miniatures) serve as something of a metaphor for the family’s situation. They ultimately have no agency, and they're revealed to be like dolls in the dollhouse, being manipulated by outside forces.”
    • “Hereditary asks if Annie – and her children – are predisposed to mental illness and doomed to experience repeated traumas, or if these tragedies are rooted in choice,” wrote blogger Britt Hayes.
    • Consider how Peter’s teacher is talking about the lessons of Sophocles, in which characters are oblivious to their lack of agency, serving as pawns to dark fate.
  • Voyeurism, and the feeling that we are secretly watching this family from a privileged and private viewpoint.
  • Decapitation, which can suggest perhaps that the headless person has no power or identity. Consider that three generations of women on Annie’s side: the grandmother, mother, and daughter, are all headless by the end of the film. A possible interpretation here is that females continue to be viewed as powerless in a culture or society that favors males and patriarchal dominance.

Other films this will remind you of

  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • Carrie
  • The Babadook
  • The Conjuring
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • Hour of the Wolf
  • Mother!
  • Possession
  • The Exorcist

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