Best Horror Movies of the Decade: Ritual and Familial Dysfunction in Hereditary
All this month, we are counting down the 31 best horror movies of the decade and doing a closer look at why each one earned a spot on our list!
31. Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster, 2018)
Hereditary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival of 2018 with a force unseen since The Blair Witch Project. Ari Aster's film debut seemed to come out of nowhere, and as a film lover following the news out of Park City, there are few things more exciting than catching wind of something that had been completely off your radar, now poised to turn the film world upside down. Snatched by film distribution/social media juggernaut A24, the horror film became a near viral sensation; easily the most talked about horror film of 2018.
While general regard of the film was positive, it also proved to be a divisive movie going experience. The film announced early on that it was not going to play within the sandbox of genre, and was subject to many "this isn't really a horror film" takes. For a genre full of fans who are steeped in rules and tradition, this was a hard thing to reckon with.
If you are reading this, you probably know what Hereditary is about. Annie Graham (Toni Collette) loses her estranged mother to old age, and is left to tend to grieving daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who was much closer with grandma than she was. It becomes clear that mental illness is an affliction that runs in the family, and something that may have contributed to Annie's fraught relationship with her mother.
The film's major twist arrives in the first act, one that was ingeniously kept hidden in the marketing campaign. SPOILERS FOLLOW.
When Charlie is dragged to a party by her older brother Peter (Alex Wolff), she has an allergic reaction to some cake that she eats. On the ride home, in attempting to get fresh air in her lungs, she leans her head out of the window, and is promptly decapitated by a telephone pole. It's a sudden and brutal shock, a turn that completely upends the movie you thought that you were watching into something else entirely.
For the rest of the film, the Graham family (also featuring a psychologist father played by Gabriel Byrne–for any In Treatment fans out there, I would like to think of this as the unofficial movie that we never got) falls apart in highly dramatic fashion. Peter is awash in a guilt that will never heal, Daddy is drowning himself in whiskey, and Annie takes a new interest in the occult. Befriended by a member of a support group played by Ann Dowd (never befriend a character played by Ann Dowd, she's always up to no good), Annie becomes interested in reaching out to Charlie…in the beyond. What she doesn't know, is that she has already kicked off a chain of events that will create a major, er, headache for her family. If it seems like they are suddenly being led by forces beyond their control, it's because they are.
If Hereditary has any DNA in the horror genre, it's to be found in the more "prestige" horror films like Rosemary's Baby or The Omen. In those films, the horror is very real, but it's being experienced by smart, well meaning people who don't act like they are in a horror film. It feels like a chamber drama with horror elements–the true horror is in watching this family unit completely tear itself apart, but still cased in a thick demonic flavor. It's clear that there was already a functional dysfunction within the Graham family before the story begins. The sudden trauma is all it took to irreparably destroy that function. In witnessing their devastating dinner table conversations, you get the sense that the only thing that will heal this family is if each member is allowed to go away and never speak to the others again. In a sense, that is exactly what ends up happening.
Ari Aster is a remarkably confident director obsessed with production design and symbols, objects, and rituals. The experience of watching Hereditary is less in waiting for a jump scare or a horrific image (though there are certainly a few all time examples of those), but in unlocking codes and meanings. It's as if finding the reason behind everything that is happening could save a life, or stop the fulfillment of a destiny that is already in full swing. Yet, much like self-analysis and searching for the root cause of all of your life problems, even finding it won't save you from suffering. It is the horror movie version of that oft-quoted sentiment, "life is meant to be lived, not understood." Only here, it may be "life is meant to end, not to be understood." In that sense, there's a true fatalism that haunts the picture, which only ends up reinforcing the value of the rituals that end up taking place. Life may be meaningless on its own, but we can create meaning through those rituals. It may feel more certain, satisfying and comforting, to bow down headless to a demon king, than to be adrift in the horror of abstract emotional suffering.
None of that necessarily sounds like your typical horror fan's cup of tea. It's hard to imagine Aster making the rounds at next year's Monster Mania convention, doling out autographs and posing with fake severed heads. Perhaps that is why it is so low on the Cinema76 list of Best Horror of the 2010's. But there may be another reason it is so low- maybe we were just a bit distracted by Aster's magnificent 2019 follow up, which, if the little birdie is telling the truth–you might be hearing about a little later on.