Austrian director Michael Haneke’s most famous film is ironically beloved by the very audience it condemns: horror fans. His 1997 classic Funny Games is about two strangers who invade the vacation home of an upper-class family to torture and murder each member one-by-one. Its fourth-wall-breaking, killer protagonist repeatedly winks at the viewer as he commits meaningless, unprompted violence, as if to say “Is this what you like to watch? Is this funny?”
In Ari Aster’s debut horror film Hereditary, the characters behave as if they’re ripped directly from a Haneke film. Not Funny Games necessarily, but perhaps they’re more like the alienated, depressive, emotionally-repressed families depicted in The Seventh Continent and Happy End. Much like Funny Games, however, Aster’s family is subjected to grotesque violence and gratuitous tragedy beyond their control in a two-hour display of sadism. We watch already unraveling people stretched beyond their limits and destroyed by a supernatural metaphor for their own disgust with each other.
Hereditary opens on the shot of a dollhouse as the camera zooms into a bedroom and seamlessly transitions to reality. We learn that Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) mother has died: the story opens on the day of her funeral. Annie delivers an awkward, backhanded eulogy for her late mother, whom she describes as “stubborn” and difficult. Annie is an artist who specializes in miniature models which she crafts from scenes of her own life, often depicting her family’s most traumatic and personal moments. We soon become acquainted with the rest of the Grahams: Annie’s teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) is a quiet stoner and her thirteen-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) displays early signs of sociopathy, cutting the heads off dead birds and refusing to play with other kids. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is something of a superfluous presence in the house; we never learn much about who he is, but he will come to serve as an antagonist to Annie as this tragedy barrels over the horizon.
It’s difficult to discuss Hereditary without spoiling the numerous mid-film twists Aster drops to keep the audience on edge and to add further torment to the lives of his characters. At the end of act one, Annie forces Charlie to go to a party with Peter in order to help her socialize (and to keep Peter from drinking). A perfect storm of circumstances leads to a stoned Peter flooring the gas in his mom’s SUV to take Charlie to a hospital, which results in a shocking mid-film turn where Charlie is decapitated by a telephone pole. Shaken, Peter takes the car home and leaves her headless body in the backseat for Annie to find in the morning.
Annie, who was numb to her mother’s death, is devastated by the loss of her own daughter. The tragedy opens an even greater rift in an already tense family dynamic, as Peter sinks into a post-traumatic depression and Annie alternates between blaming her son and herself. Steve is left as a mediator, increasingly unnerved and enraged by Annie’s erratic behavior.
Hauntings and the supernatural provide ripe inspiration for storytellers looking to explore the darkest, unspoken fears of family living, as we’ve seen in recent years through films like The Babadook and The Witch. But the prolonged, anguished deaths of this family is more like the group suicide of The Seventh Continent. There are effective scares and an excellent, dreadful atmosphere where life and nightmare intertwine, but there are only flimsy thematic reasons for what occurs.
An early classroom scene plants the concept of fate versus free will, and a teacher asks whether death is more tragic if a person cannot control their own destiny. The title Hereditary suggests that there is maybe an inherent flaw in our subjects’ DNA, that family history is condemning them to death. As secrets about Annie’s mother are revealed, the horror stems back to the matriarchal figure whom we only meet in old photos and paranormal corner-of-the-eye moments. Have the Grahams invited a curse upon themselves, or are they bound by blood to be damned by their lineage?
As we watch these people from a dollhouse perspective, dying one by one for no clear reason, Aster recalls the nihilism of Funny Games’ initial contempt for the horror genre — death is bad and it should feel bad. But is it actually?
The other day, a friend of mine called the movie “the art house equivalent of watching somebody sadistically kill their Sims.” Ari Aster retweeted his joke, which I can only interpret as approval. As a video game, The Sims put the player in the position of God, allowing you to give your Sims free will or to turn it off and seize control at your whim. But if free will can be taken away, was it ever there to begin with? With Hereditary’s constant cuts to miniature models, the Grahams do feel like boxed-in toys, and it’s as if Aster has deleted the doors and made them set off a firecracker inside. For all the anguish, screaming, and desperation, the Grahams’ catharsis ends flat. Ultimately these aren’t people who are dying; they’re dolls, and their sacrifice is for our amusement.