“Hereditary literally demonizes a transgender spirit.”
Title: Hereditary (2018)
Director: Ari Aster 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Ari Aster 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Between recent high-concept horror like Get Out, A Quiet Place, or Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, it takes much more than rote scares and gore to put a scary movie on the map. Enter Hereditary, one of 2018’s most recognized films for its modern take on the occult that roots itself in an absorbing, intergenerational drama.
Ostensibly, the plot consists of a family that gets unwittingly drawn into dark rituals and demonic possession. But thoughtful explorations of trauma and complicated love layer in, all told through thick, unsettling tension and mystery. I love piecing clues together in horror stories, and Hereditary does provide some opportunity to do that. But as the action grew zanier, I began to find the constant stream of befuddling behavior more flashy than substantive. Watching Toni Collette jackhammer her head against the ceiling or garrote herself with a piano wire felt more like taking medicine—something I had to swallow just to get to the story. And why does Paimon make that clicking noise, anyway, except to deliver surface-level chills?
Call it a stretch, but I wanted more depth to the demon king’s motivations beyond simple resurrection and world domination (snooze). In the absence of that, I would have been just as happy to look inward and explore family dynamics. Director Ari Aster expertly weaves a network of fascinating relationships, so when the supernatural overtakes their reality and turns them into brute animals compelled only by survival, I became detached. Unlike Get Out, which carries its social commentary through to its gore-filled denouement, Hereditary drops all nuance the moment the household erupts into manic psychosis.
Collette commands the film as matriarch Annie, a diorama artist who masterfully sidesteps the many sexist tropes she could have fallen into. Seriously, there are enough to warrant an entire Wikipedia entry titled “Misogyny in horror films” complete with multiple sections in outline form.
To his credit, Aster sails past the quicksand with fleet-footed ease and creates a three-dimensional woman who exhibits independence and fierce love for children, but who bears generational trauma that can’t help but be passed down in damaging ways. Unfortunately, other female characters feel less supported. A24, the film’s distributor, plasters daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) across Hereditary marketing but really as a red herring. I felt disappointed and misled when I quickly realized her brother would be the one to take center stage instead.
That said, other women do appear in other supporting roles. Annie’s newfound friend, Joan (Ann Dowd), has her own agenda and we get to see some of her backstory unfold. Finally, the specter of Annie’s mother haunts the entire film and impressively manages to play a pivotal role without uttering a single line of dialogue.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 0% of key cast and crew members were POC (!!!)
Hereditary subverts assumptions of white “normalcy” but in order to do so, casts only white actors. The central, nuclear family lives an upper-middle class life and all the classmates of Charlie and her brother Peter (Alex Wolff) are white too.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with casting this way in one-off cases. However, when you consider that that more than three-quarters of top films in 2016 had disproportionately more white characters than this demographic’s actual share of the U.S. population, it gets tiresome to keep defending film after film for leaning into this over-saturation. (To note, about 16% had disproportionately more characters of color than their actual shares of population. The day those percentages finally match up, I’ll STFU and get out of your hair.)
Deduction for LGBTQ: -0.50
Some gender fluidity comes into play in Hereditary. The demon Paimon only wants to inhabit the body of a man, to the point of Annie’s mother plotting an entire series of events beyond her death just to kill off her granddaughter Charlie, so that Paimon can possess Peter instead.
As a cisgender bystander, something felt vaguely transphobic about watching a trans spirit commit mass murder in his unquenchable thirst for the right body. But Sasha Geffen delves into the topic with more depth and expertise, as they raise interesting points about the genre’s long-standing fear of transfeminine villains (think Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs or Norman Bates in Psycho, both of whom kill to embody women). Hereditary stands out as one of the few films to stoke fear of a transmasculine demon, told through Charlie with her baggy clothes and boyish name. But at the end of the day, is it really so much better to vilify a trans man over a trans woman?
Mediaversity Grade: C- 2.67/5
Hereditary portrays wonderfully complex women in integral roles, but its modern sensibilities stop at racial diversity and the film literally demonizes a transgender spirit.