The matriarch of the family has died, and her daughter Annie (Toni Collette) is living with what can best be termed mixed feelings. She's not glad her mother is dead, exactly, but she had a troubled relationship with her and that has left her worried for her close family who are left: husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and especially thirteen-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who has been exhibiting a problem personality Annie believes is down to her being too close to her grandmother. But was the old woman as poisonous as her daughter has convinced herself she was? Could it be Annie who is the issue here, adversely affecting her children?
Hereditary arrived with a lot of expectation weighing its shoulders down from a pressure of horror fans wanting it to be the next, big, scary movie, a classic for the ages rather than one of those cult items like It Follows or The Babadook which gained a lot of press, but did not secure the top slot at the box office on release in many territories. Naturally, as is the way with these things, there was a backlash - horror suffers more than most genres from those who announce their gems overrated, never mind the actually overrated material that might deserve a sober assessment. But there was something more interesting here from writer and director Ari Aster that was definitely present.
The thing was, it was present in many of those cult chillers too, and that was the desire to open up horror into the drama section, often family drama but not necessarily. Aster said he was as much influenced by the classic downers like Ordinary People or The Ice Storm as he was by the shockers he was more consciously invoking once he allowed his audience to understand where he was going with all this. For that reason, as society had grown so uncertain as a matter of course, and even your family was no longer a guarantee of security, by drawing on the relationship sagas of before where characters were assuredly not O.K. there was an unease to Hereditary that tugged at the nerves.
Yet it also tugged at the heartstrings, as the manner in which Annie's brood unravelled was genuinely sad, all those people supposedly so close to one another but utterly unable to provide help and comfort to those who needed it most, and at the crucial times. Quite often we would witness characters breaking down in tears, not only the borderline hysterical Annie (Collette must have retired to bed absolutely exhausted after every day of shooting), but everyone else too; it was a small cast, the bit parts aside, which served to emphasise the isolation that was doing them so much harm. If Aster had eliminated the horror and supernatural angle completely, he might have arguably wound up with an even stronger work, though the fantasy aspects acted as a cushion to the emotional ravaging that was going on: if it had purely been the family tearing themselves apart, it could have been unbearable.
That said, because there was an outside influence that mixed itself up with the internal forces devastating the unit, it did make this more relevant to the times as we could all relate to seeing the news headlines and feeling any attempt to heal the world was utterly futile. Hereditary tapped into that with its final scenes where we are told there was nothing that could have been done since others have decided to push for evil and chaos as a focus for humanity, and essentially abandon hope all ye who enter here. For a long stretch you can be unsure whether there was any paranormal menace at all, and that this family were so messed up that they were causing every woe they suffered themselves, growing so insane with grief and desolation that they are hallucinating their way into the grave. The fact that someone - more than one someone, in fact - was getting their kicks by plunging them into madness for a weirdo power trip was both relevant and tragic. Not a perfect film, but with so much more to ruminate on than many a slicker item. Music by Colin Stetson.