Warning: Here be spoilers
Throughout the screening of Hereditary that I attended, I couldn’t work out if Annie (played by Toni Collette) was just another Crazy Bitch who had imagined the whole spooky scenario her family were being subjected to, but who had enacted the bizarre and disturbing scenes throughout the film herself without realising it. Like Nicole Kidman’s Grace in The Others. At best, I concluded, we’d be left wondering whether the horrors that unfurled on the screen in front of us were real or the product of aforementioned Crazy Bitch without knowing for sure…
However, by the end of the film I realised that I had been lulled into a trap designed to make me think this way before this uncertainty was washed away by a flood, leaving us to ponder two headless corpses worshiping the now-possessed son of the family who had become the latest victim of some sort of spiritualist, demon-summoning cult.
Is the monster in the basement real, or does the thing which lurks in those shadows simply represent something dark inside the mind of mum? This was a question posed by another recent horror movie which broke a number of tropes and traditions – The Babadook. Was mum feeding worms to some unearthly being, or was she keeping her own demons at bay? Nobody can quite agree on what the real horror was, just as critics have always been divided on whether or not the Governess in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw was imaging the whole damned thing. Hereditary (for me) was also shrouded in this mystery, too. Up until a certain point, anyway.
This sort of psychological horror has much to offer the horror genre. In Hereditary, there are mentions of schizophrenia and dementia in Annie’s family leading you to conclude, along with her husband, that the trauma in her life has caused her to descend into a chaotic, dangerous breakdown. However, we all learned our lesson (none more so that her hubbie) that you dismiss a woman as “crazy” at your own peril when she insists there’s something demonic in the attic.
The movie was clever to lull us into this certainty about Annie Graham being just another crazy bitch. How clever to make us miss the clues to what’s really going on the whole way through. There’s foreshadowing and false foreshadowing because we as an audience have been judged, and I for one fit right into that pigeonhole.
Hereditary is a gem of a horror film. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea because there are no jump scares and the story is subtle in its build. We sit in skepticism along with the characters when glasses move during seances, and when demon-summoning phrases are found scrawled on walls. When we realised what’s going on, we suddenly realise it’s been clear the whole way through. Only when you really examine the scenes in detail do you pick up on the tension rising continually – the constantly present ticking of a clock, shoes not being removed before going upstairs… and then the crescendo of the movie which leaves very little to the imagination, proving to us all that these bitches may be tripping, but it’s just over the headless corpses of their female relatives.
I left feeling confused and a bit anxious about what had actually happened, and I think it’s okay that even though we seemed to be provided with answers, there were still many questions that didn’t reach a conclusion. As though… well, as though our confusion and horror was all predetermined.