For me, the horror genre always gets compared to “ The Sentinel” ( 1977) . John Carradine as an old, blind priest guarding the gates of hell is at the top of the scale as my terror barometer. “Rosemary’s Baby” and “ The Exorcist”, likewise. Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” is obsessed with the same evil, yet a family’s unraveling makes this film more of a psychological foray into the psyches of the spawn of a witch mother/grandmother rather than pure devil power. The acting is terrific. The cinematography artful. The screenplay, a tad dodgy.
Toni Collette is the vulnerable Annie, a diorama artist working out her painful childhood. We are not certain that she is a reliable narrator of her past, but her husband, Steve, (Gabriel Byrne) we come to trust. He is patient and protective. His love is being put to the test by Annie’s almost psychotic behavior. Their two children, Peter ( Alex Wolff) and Charlie ( Milly Shapiro) orbit the Graham family home like disembodied teens. Their matriarchal grandmother has just been buried, but not for long.
The horror in their world is a trap. The circumstances and the situations they find themselves in impossible to dodge. A voiceover from the secretive and private 78 year-old Ellen Taylor Leigh tells the family that “ our sacrifices will pale next to the rewards.” Can you sell you whole family’s soul to the devil ?
The horror tropes are here, too. There are the flies, the decapitations, the apparitions, the hex signs and seances , and grave desecrations. But the slow build-up to the inevitable is what keeps the audience tense. Amid the histrionics and the loneliness, we see a family crumble.
Annie’s miniature representations of catastrophic family events are more creepy than healing. When a grocery store encounter leads to a friendship with a grief group member, ( Ann Dowd ) Annie becomes even more vulnerable. Pills, work pressure, sleepwalking, and guilt lead to temper tantrums and loss of control. When Annie’s sweater sleeve bursts into flame, we are ready for the worst. There is still a body in the attic.
Pawel Pogorzelski’s photography ingeniously has Annie’s dioramas morph into real rooms. Nightmares of ants crawling over Peter’s face and sketches of his gorged out eyeballs ready us for his demise. The final scene I did not like. Peter looked too shell-shocked to be sacrificed willingly.