Horror movie Hereditary has caused quite a buzz on social media since its worldwide release in June 2018. Three members of the 25YL team took themselves off to the cinema to see if it really did live up to the hype, and then caught up to discuss their thoughts on the film.
Sitting at the table today are:
Myself, Laura Stewart (Executive Editor – Film & TV)
Age 39 and living in Swansea, Wales. I am not particularly a horror fan, but when I hear that something is supposed to be truly scary I want to see it! I have no religion or faith, though would consider myself spiritual and I am definitely open-minded about the supernatural, having seen plenty of things I cannot explain in my life. I went to see the film alone.
Aaron Ploof (Staff Writer)
Age 29 and living in Indiana, United States. I love piecing together clues and being unsure of what is objectively real while I watch a film, so psychological horror is one of my favorite genres. In college, I studied both Theatre and English Literature. I’m Christian in faith but also fairly liberal spiritually, and I’m convinced that there’s more to reality than what we can see and touch with our senses. I saw the movie with my father.
Joshua Lami (Staff Writer)
ASL? 33/M/North Carolina, United States. Movie critic/analyst, journalist, grew up a horror junkie, but find myself underwhelmed by the genre lately. In the last few years I’ve gravitated toward art house titles and dark dramas, but always game for a new horror film, if I hear good things from the right people. Not religious, but once wrote a sermon for a pastor and thought it was fun. Would do again. Saw the movie with my significant other, having no knowledge of any plot points or even the actors/filmmakers.
Plot: When Ellen passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. The more they discover, the more they find themselves trying to outrun the sinister fate they seem to have inherited.
Main Cast: Annie (Toni Collette), Steve (Gabriel Byrne), Peter (Alex Wolff), Charlie (Milly Shapiro), Joan (Ann Dowd).
LS: Welcome guys, to the table. We have all now seen Hereditary, so what were your first impressions?
AP: I was very impressed with everything throughout the first half of the film. Toni Collette’s performance was amazing. I majored in theatre in college, so I know how deep she must have dug to pull out that kind of pain. When the film went full supernatural by the end, I didn’t know what to make of it at first. It felt like the ending to The Witch, and I wasn’t sure whether it actually happened or not. Couldn’t take it seriously. But I like it the more I think about it.
JL: I went into this movie blind. These days I’m writing film reviews at least three or four times a week, so watching movies has become a job. The ones I’m ACTUALLY interested in seeing (few and far betwixt), I avoid all press for them. I don’t watch trailers, I don’t read reviews, I don’t read Reddit comments. Most of the time I don’t even know who is starring or directed. This was the case with Hereditary. I keep feelers out for what’s making a buzz at film festivals and then keep a note reminding me to avoid everything to do with that movie until it’s out. So I went into Hereditary thinking this would be an above-average horror film, as it apparently did well at Sundance, but that’s all I knew. When I left the theater, I had to ask my significant other to call her mother and get a Xanax, because I was having an anxiety attack. I was legitimately upset by the movie. That hasn’t happened to me since I was a child. First impression: I hated it and thought I’d gone insane.
LS: That is big impact stuff, Josh! I also knew nothing about the movie but heard a buzz about it, so I wanted to check it out. Like Aaron, I felt that the first half to three quarters were brilliant and really kept me on edge, as you said mostly down to Toni Collette’s performance which was outstanding. I was a little disappointed by the ending, immediately afterwards at least, but it’s already starting to change in my mind the more I think about it. The sound was incredible, probably best appreciated at the cinema in surround sound. The bass humming in that house, that presence it created was really intimidating for me.
JL: It’s important to note, I think the reason some people are reacting so strongly, while others are like “I mean it was kinda scary, but I don’t see the big deal” is that this movie hits on a very specific fear. If you don’t have this fear, it’s not going to be effective. If you have it, though, this movie is hell. Specifically a fear of going insane, losing control, and harming the ones you love. Losing sanity is a serious fear I dealt with while younger, and while that’s mostly dormant, certain things kick that fear awake. This movie kind of caused it to erupt in a volcano-esque manner.
I should say, not AS effective. It’s still plenty creepy.
AP: I went into the film with the idea focused on the title of the film, and what themes were going to be explored. The scene with Peter in the classroom touched upon issues of free will and fate, as well as missing obvious signs due to arrogance. I was pretty sure the film’s title referred to insanity being passed down through the bloodline, so I was constantly thinking that most of the movie was from the point of view of characters and we couldn’t trust what we were seeing. After seeing the ending, I’m pretty sure it did involve supernatural occurrences, but disorders like Insomnia, Disassociative Identity Disorder, and Schizophrenia definitely factored in. And after thinking about the movie from the outset, it’s clear that little clues are sprinkled throughout. The doll-house also speaks towards not being in control of your actions.
Josh, what you said makes perfect sense. I didn’t mean to say Insomnia [laughs].
JL: Insomnia sucks too, though.
LS: It really does! It’s a living nightmare and leads to issues very much portrayed in this film, for sure: hallucinations, delusions, extreme emotional states.
JL: Ari Aster, the director, did an AMA on reddit recently, he did confirm, it’s supernatural. He did put the psychological aspects in there as well, purposefully, to blur the line, but it IS a literal ending.
LS: Yes, and you know it was kinda disappointing because the fear of losing your mind is so much scarier than the supernatural to me.
AP: A little tidbit, I’ve dealt with issues of Schizophrenia in the past, and lost my hold on reality too. Never saw anything that wasn’t there, but had a delusional mindset for sure. Josh, that’s good to know. I’m glad we got that confirmation. Laura, yeah. Part of me wishes it was kept ambiguous.
LS: That is where horrors often go wrong for me, not leaving it open to interpretation.
JL: I think the moment where I was like “OK, I’m not ok, this is not OK, I’m not sure I can handle this” is that dream sequence where we gradually find out that they’re covered in paint thinner. That blurred line between, “wait is this happening? Am I about to kill someone? Have I lost it?” hit me so very hard. I remember putting my hands over my cheeks and just kinda hyperventilating. Never had a reaction like that in a theater.
In a sense, I’m glad he ended it like he did. If it had been clearly psychological, I think it would have been too much for me to handle [laughs]. But I mostly agree, from an artistic standpoint, I’d have gone ambiguous and left it more psychological.
AP: That’s the scene when Annie is sleepwalking, right?
LS: Yes, and her grief at losing her child. I don’t think I have ever seen it portrayed so perfectly on-screen. Or the grief over her mother, handled by her so very differently and I could totally relate to that. In fact, it was her honest almost disdain of her mother, even at her funeral. It may not have painted a particularly nice picture of Annie, to not be able to muster up something nice about her even for the people in attendance, but it felt true to me. And, of course, there was going to be a damn good reason for it too.
AP: Yes, that’s what I was talking about. So real. A performance like that is truly exhausting. And I’ve never had to go that far on stage. Bringing yourself to dark places takes a toll on actors. Even the dining room scene where she explodes at her husband and (son) Peter was so uncontrolled and manic.
JL: The haunting matter-of-factness of Annie’s discovery of Charlie, followed by a smash cut to Charlie’s head covered in ants, followed by the brilliant camera work following the casket into the ground, all overlain with Annie’s heart-wrenching screams was… probably the best filmmaking we will see this decade. Just my thoughts.
AP: Truly chilling. I hope that’s the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like Peter when he just walks right up to his bedroom and just collapses in a daze.
LS: Oh god, that really tore my heart. From the moment of Charlie’s death, the drive home by Peter, and then Annie’s discovery of her body in the car just her screaming. None of it seen, just Peter’s face, that realisation that it wasn’t all a horrible nightmare, it had really happened. Truly upsetting. I did find myself whimpering to myself at that point.
JL: That’s just… about as effective as a movie can get. I don’t think something like that can be topped, that Charlie death/funeral sequence I mean.
LS: No, I agree. It was so real. I know that is what I’d be like if my son died, because even the thought of it makes me want to scream like that.
AP: I told Laura before she went to the film that it feels like you’re seeing something that was never meant to be seen. I felt violated. So it definitely did its job. And to think that Annie would re-create the scene of her daughter’s death in her diorama. I felt so bad for Steve when he walked in on her. I felt bad for him throughout the entire film.
LS: It definitely pulls you in different directions, as she’s obviously extremely unlikable in the way she deals with her grief when it comes to her son, but you also know that is absolutely a human reaction.
JL: My inner horror nerd has awoken, but I will say we’ve seen a less effective version of this scene before… kind of. I say less effective but don’t let it detract from Bernard Rose’s brilliance, because until last Monday it was one of the most jarring scenes in a film I’d ever witnessed. In Candyman, there’s a sequence with a similar smash-cut to a young boy lying in the floor of a bathroom, screaming and holding himself, bloody. Also, there is a scene in Candyman where Helen wakes up covered in blood to a mother who thinks she killed her baby. Similar portrayal of grief-induced-psychosis there.
AP: I’ve never seen that film. Might need to.
LS: It has been a long time since I saw Candyman! One of the few films that did scare me as a kid.
JL: Yes, the only other film I’d compare Hereditary to in terms of tone is Candyman, because you have that theme of “is this just her killing everyone? Or is Candyman real?” Has that kind of haunting atmosphere, very unsettling and sticks with you.
People are citing Rosemary’s Baby, but I think Candyman is a closer comparison.
AP: Rosemary’s Baby had a very strong effect on me. It’s my favorite horror film.
JL: I own the Criterion and love the film. And the ending of Hereditary is an obvious (perhaps too obvious for my tastes) nod to the Polanski masterpiece, but I just get a lot of Barker vibes from Hereditary at the end of the day. For that matter, Candyman and Clive Barker are so very underrated.
AP: When did you guys realize that Charlie wasn’t simply strange but also possessed?
LS: I don’t know that I did think of Charlie being possessed at all, to be honest, until it was revealed. I guess because I wasn’t actually expecting any of it to be really happening.
AP: It only occurred to me when Peter did the clicking noise with his tongue. I was wondering what the thing was with the “throat getting bigger” thing. Both Peter and Charlie said it. Maybe it was related to the decapitation motif. If you research the demon Paimon, apparently that’s what the mythological figure prefers in his sacrifices.
LS: I think I thought that he was coming out in sympathy with Charlie’s nut allergy. I guess this is what the film does extremely cleverly — keeps two possible interpretations open all the way through.
JL: I can’t remember what Aster said, but he answered just about every question in his AMA, which for the record, I think was the wrong move, but in a way I’m kind of admiring him for going full ghost house with the ending. He knew he had a work of potential prestige on his hands. But prestigious movies defy convention. Conventionally speaking, the art house film would go psychological, not supernatural. So he teased going psychological, but then he no-sold it at the end. He defied art house convention. It’s a bold move.
Initially felt the same on the “oh, stupid ghostly crap” but the more I think about it, he might have made a solid move. Why can’t the supernatural be artistic?
LS: Absolutely, and I think I will learn to love it for that later down the line.
AP: That is bold. I wouldn’t have answered every question myself either. Gives it a more mysterious vibe. Have either of you read The Turn of the Screw? Reminds me of that short ghost story that leaves you wondering whether the governess murdered her ward or whether there was actually a ghost.
JL: If we’re recommending books, Clive Barker’s short story (about a 45 minute read for me) The Midnight Meat Train is probably my all-time favorite horror story. If you’ve seen the movie, the story is better. If you haven’t seen the movie, read the story first. It has an ending that is uh… let’s say… different.
But back to Hereditary. The visuals, the sound, the mood, just so well executed. I dunno who this Ari Aster guy is, but he has my money. Movie gets an instant 10/10 from me simply for being the first horror film to legitimately scare me since Candyman.
AP: I really can’t see any flaws with it. I will have to agree with you. I’ll definitely be in line for whatever he puts out next.
JL: Can we talk about the piano wire scene? That’s when I officially stopped being able to do it anymore. From that point on, I was looking at the walls mostly and only glancing back at the screen for five seconds at a time.
LS: I was very, very nervous at the beginning but settled as it went along. I agree with the sound and visuals being perfect, the script too — and yes, just about to bring that up, Josh. Good grief, it went on for what felt like a very long time.
AP: Right… ugh. That came out of nowhere. I thought it was a hallucination, because how would she have gotten through the door? But her body did float into the treehouse. My mind is picturing it right now and I’m feeling sick [laughs].
LS: Annie’s possession, trying to get into the attic, slamming her head against the door hatch super fast, ugh, that whole sequence did make me feel sick.
JL: The way she was making eye contact with Peter, all the while cutting her own head off, that hit me hard. There’s the possession aspect, but then there’s also that aspect of “you cut my daughters head off, now you’re gonna watch me cut my own head off. WATCH.” Maybe I’m the only one who got that, but it’s not a fun thing to get.
LS: Oh yes, I totally felt that, “You blame me, I blame you. This is revenge.”
AP: I didn’t get that, but it makes total sense now. She would do that to him. She already hated him from the get-go.
JL: Gives me the willies just to think about it. Some interesting tidbits, at the beginning Charlie says “she wanted me to be a boy.” Upon rewatch, that scene makes crazy sense.
AP: Right. Because Paiman was looking for a male body.
LS: He was a great actor, that kid who played Peter. Yes, the grandmother always wanted a boy. I wonder why Annie did give Charlie to her mother but not Peter? And did you notice the dolls house scene she set up? Her mother had been breastfeeding Charlie, as now we know all the scenes she set up were of things that really happened.
JL: Did not notice that.
LS: It was right at the very beginning. She said that her mother always wanted to feed Charlie, but it was only when you saw the miniatures that you realised she meant, like, literally. Not from a bottle or spoon, which makes you wonder how a woman of that age could still breastfeed?
AP: Yes, I did notice that. My guess is Annie’s trying to get Charlie to her attached to her. Did Annie try to miscarry her son to spite her mom?
LS: It seems as though Annie knew her mother’s plan all along, trying to avoid having a male child, only allowing her mother access to her daughter whilst she was a baby. She was definitely aware of something, but that is still open to interpretation.
So, I think we have covered everything, other than to say that I think the performances by everyone, Ann Dowd as Joan, too, were all superb. They did some really great casting. Though, I think because Ann Dowd played Patti in The Leftovers, I kinda knew straight away that she was going to be no good. It was a similar role in a vague sense.
AP: Joan came off to me as overly pushy and intrusive, so I was wary of her character from her first scene in the film. She reminded me of Minnie Castavet (Ruth Gordon) from Rosemary’s Baby. She was superb.
JL: Agreed there. And if Toni Collette doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, I’ll make that video of me singing Radiohead.
LS: [Laughs] Yes, she definitely deserves it. My first thoughts were of Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance in The Shining. That level of greatness. Probably better, to be honest.
So, thank you for joining us for our first ’roundtable film discussion’. Have you seen Hereditary? What did you think? Was there anything we missed? Let us know in the comments on Twitter and Facebook.