‘They f**k you up, your mum and dad…’
The opening lines to Philip Larkin’s best known verse are still as accurate as ever. The psychological scars that parents can unintentionally inflict upon their offspring are often lifelong wounds, and are often repeated when their kids have children, forming a vicious cycle of mental anguish.
Anguish is very much the order of the day for Ari Aster’s bold new horror film, which took this year’s Sundance Film Festival by storm, a clutch of hyperbolic reviews calling it one of the scariest films ever made. And no doubt, it is very scary, but perhaps not in a typically ‘horror’ way. Sure, the supernatural plays a large part, but there’s also a lot going on under the surface in Aster’s film, which examines the ties between parent and child as well as the terrors of mental illness.
Toni Collette takes the lead as Annie, a married artist with two teenagers who recently lost her mother, a woman who seemingly suffered from dissociative identity disorder and inflicted extreme mental abuse upon her daughter. When they move into her house after the funeral, it seems as if her mother’s spirit is haunting Annie’s daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), but a horrific incident in the first act soon sends the story down a completely unexpected and far more terrifying avenue.
The film touches on so many topics that it’ll take audiences a long time to unpack it all after a screening, whether that be feelings of inadequacy as a mother or as a daughter, whether mental illness is hereditary or whether a parent can actually hate their own child.
Hereditary unfolds like a particularly nasty Greek drama, trauma upon trauma piled on top of a family unit that splinters into jagged pieces. Sitting central amongst all this emotional carnage is a towering performance from Collette. It’s unlikely she’ll get any awards attention as the horror genre is often ignored by mainstream awards bodies, but without her, Hereditary wouldn’t have half the impact. How she didn’t go home every day utterly drained and unable to return to set is something of a minor miracle. There is pure anguish in her performance, and it is quite something to behold.
A warning, then. If you are not prepared for the horror to come, this will leave you scarred. As Aster himself said at one of the screenings at Sundance – ‘I needed to get it out of my system. I took my sickness and now put it inside all of you.’