The horror of grief: how loss is the ultimate boogeyman in HereditaryThe buzzed-about shocker, starring Toni Collette, is the latest horror film to recognize the devastating effect of losing a loved one
Thu 17 Jun 2018
few years ago, a friend whose father had recently died, suddenly and prematurely, asked me to go to the cinema with him. Traditional comfort viewing was not on the agenda: he wasn’t looking to lose himself in a pillowy romantic comedy or a hot blast of action escapism. Rather, his choice of viewing was Let Me In, the slicked-up but still largely downbeat US remake of Scandi vampire tale Let the Right One In. “It’s a bit grim,” I cautioned, unnecessarily. “Grim is sort of where I am at the moment,” he replied, and I could hardly argue with that: sometimes, when your heart and mind are in a particularly dark place, it can feel better to submerge them in more shadow than hold them up to the light.
He wouldn’t have been the first bereaved person to massage the raw wound of their grief with the salt of horror cinema: it is, after all, the genre more preoccupied than any other with death, the persistent fear it stokes in us, and the cold void it leaves when it strikes nearby. So many of the best horror films are built around characters themselves in mourning, rendered either vulnerable, invulnerable or a bit of both by the extremity of their pain. To watch Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now, haunted by the seeming spectre of his dead daughter, or even the Friday the 13th series, with its grisly chain of grief-motivated massacres, is to see, in a sense, one’s own psychic pain writ large and dripping in blood – you might not feel better for it, but at least you feel seen.
I wouldn’t necessarily prescribe Hereditary, out soon in cinemas, to anyone for this (or any other) reason, though Ari Aster’s magnificent directorial debut is the most skin-prickling demonstration in recent memory of cinema’s capacity to look death in the face and scream. It’s an unsubtle, unforgiving horror nightmare for which not everyone will have the upturned stomach; for those who do, Hereditary plunges about as deep into the abyss of familial loss, ensuing blame and paralysing sorrow as it is possible to go.
Varying in its approach from sleek, serpentine psychological teasing to rattletrap ghost-ride scares straight from the B-movie playbook, it’s a film best approached cold in terms of its plot machinations: if you haven’t seen it and want an optimum first viewing, you’d do best to read little in advance. Aster opens proceedings in a household newly touched by death: the Grahams, a well-off suburban family in one of those roomy American houses so perfect for storing lingering spirits, are preparing for a grandmother’s funeral, though no one seems beside themselves with grief. Speaking to gathered mourners, the dead woman’s daughter Annie (Toni Collette) speaks of her mother in tones of chilly, compromised respect; her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and teenage children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) look on with a detachment that borders on relief.
Something, it seems, has been haunting this family long before the old woman, a secretive believer in the occult, passed away. The mourning process unlocks that trouble in short order, though not as and when we expect: instead, it’s another sudden and brutal death that causes hell to break loose, in more ways than one, as the family is subsumed by more feeling than it can rationally handle. Though Aster’s film would make a fine (albeit nerve-destroying) double-bill with Jennifer Kent’s 2014 sensation The Babadook – another intimate, anxiously escalating study of domestic terror rooted in a loved one’s absence – it manages emotion in very different ways.
The Babadook is a narrative of catharsis: much theory has been written about how its eponymous demon is a mere manifestation of the stages of mourning first denied and then endured by its protagonist, a widowed single mother. In Hereditary, however, grief escapes from a Pandora’s box, forever wounding and changing its sufferers with no apparent possibility of healing or renewal. Collette, in the gutsiest and most wrenching performance of her career, plays a woman quite literally and violently possessed by her own grief.
It’s a canny bit of casting: in another era-leading horror film, The Sixth Sense, she played a young mother whose unresolved emotional baggage with her own dead mum finally links her to the spiritual world only her son can see. Once again, grief acts as a conduit to the abject and uncanny, though M Night Shyamalan’s ghost story concludes with rather more human tenderness and togetherness than Hereditary does. For some, however, Hereditary may resemble their own experiences of loss and emotional displacement: to watch it is to feel trapped in a tunnel with no obvious light source at either end, but plenty of sound and fury and scratching, scarring pain. Hereditary is unlikely to lift a burden from anyone who watches it, but there’s brute emotional honesty to its freaky worst-case scenario: not every tragedy, it reminds us, shrinks or sinks into the past.