The story unwinds in a slow burn terrifying emotional rollercoaster of a ride when Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family passes away. We are first introduced to the Graham family in a very cleverly realised opening tracking shot of an elaborate miniature house under 'construction' inside a home studio. As the camera pans in on a bedroom inside the small yet very lifelike house and gets closer, we see a figure curled up inside a bed, asleep. Into the room walks Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne) to wake up his son Peter (Alex Wolff), carrying a newly pressed suit that he is to wear today to the funeral, of his grandmother Ellen.
At the funeral, as Steve, Peter and younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) sit in the pews, mother Annie (Toni Collette) delivers the eulogy. Annie has little good to say about her recently deceased mother, explaining that the pair had a fraught and at times tense relationship over the years that ebbed and flowed, that she was also a very secretive person with only a very close circle of friends, and had her own private rituals. After the service, the family of four return home - a large older style house that stands alone in its own grounds.
Annie is a miniature artist who builds tiny houses, buildings and furnishes them with ornate and intricately detailed items of everyday furniture and appliances and of course, custom made people. She is currently working on a special project for an exhibition, on which the deadline is approaching. A few days have passed and Steve receives a phone call from the funeral home saying that Ellen's grave has been desecrated. He chooses not to report this news to Annie, for fear that this will upset her further.
During that first week, Annie tells Steve that she is going out to catch a movie. Instead she rocks up to a support group for those that have suffered a recent heartbreaking death in the family or of someone close. She sits reluctantly largely unwilling to take part, but when asked, as a newcomer to the group, to share her experience, Annie opens up. Now that she's been invited to speak to the assembled group of about a dozen others she speaks of the history of mental illness on her side of the family, how her depressive father starved himself to death, how her schizophrenic brother accused her mother of trying to put people inside his body and eventually committed suicide, and how Ellen herself suffered from multiple personality disorder.
Within minutes Charlie begins the early onset of anaphylactic shock which steadily worsens. Peter lifts Charlie into the back of the car and races off to the hospital. Gasping for air, Charlie opens the window and leans her head out, just as Peter swerves abruptly to avoid the carcass of a dead animal lying in the road directly in front of him. Peter loses control of the car momentarily and veers close to a telephone pole, on the side that Charlie is hanging out of. She is decapitated. Peter is stunned and sits motionless in the car after bringing it to halt. He knows exactly what has happened but daren't turn around to see.
He comes to his senses and drives home, enters the house quietly and goes to bed without telling his parents, who discover Charlie's body and severed head by the road side the next morning. Annie breaks down uncontrollably over Charlie's death, wailing in her mourning from which not even Steve can console her, and now having to attend the second family funerals within days of each other.
Peter begins seeing visions of Charlie around the house - real or imagined we don't know, but to him they are very real, and very creepy. Annie returns to the support group, but this time does not enter electing to sit outside in her car pondering. As she exits the car park she is waved down by Joan (Ann Dowd) another member of the support group who lost her son and her grandson in a drowning accident six months earlier. Annie is invited to connect with Joan whenever she feels it necessary to aid her recovery. This she does and visits Joan at her apartment where she reveals that she used to sleepwalk, and on one such occasion with almost dire consequences for herself and Peter. Joan confides that she has learned to communicate with her deceased eight year old grandson by means of a seance. After convincing a very sceptical Annie to participate, Joan demonstrates how the connection is real. Having been totally creeped out by her seance experience, Annie exits stage left rather sharply.
However, a day or so later, Annie wakes Steve and Peter and orders them both downstairs, and to ask no questions but to trust her. She convinces them both to conduct their own seance and to connect with Charlie although both her husband and her son are extremely reluctant. Annie lights a candle, and asks them to join hands. Peter especially is freaked out by the request. Annie places an upturned glass on the table which after a connection is established moves itself across the table. The candle then erupts like a Bunsen burner turned up to full, and a glass cabinet is smashed. Annie goes into a trance like state seemingly possessed by the spirit of Charlie, until Steve wakes her by throwing a glass of water over her.
After this episode Annie believes that Charlie's spirit has become malevolent. She throws Charlie's sketchbook into the open fire, only for the flame to jump across to Annie's sleeve and take hold, until she retrieves the smoking book from the fire and stamps out the flames so extinguishing the fire on her arm at the same time. Annie later rifles through her mother’s keepsakes and comes across a photo album that linked Joan to Ellen, and a book in which her mother had highlighted a section referencing the demon Paimon, a 'King of Hell' whose preference is to inhabit the bodies of vulnerable males. It transpires that Ellen and Joan's mother were members of a coven that worshipped Paimon, of which Joan is now a member.
Following this realisation, Annie ventures up into the attic and pulling down the step ladder is confronted with a swarm of flies and a godawful stench. Searching around in the dimly lit attic space with pesky flies all around her, she comes across a blackened headless corpse lying in a corner, that she suspects to be that of her mother Ellen, but can't be sure. Simultaneously, at school Peter is taking part in an English lesson and with his mind elsewhere he is hallucinating. His arm shoots up in the air involuntarily, his eyes bloodshot and his face contorts. Then he slams his face down so hard on his desk, and repeats sending him back reeling with his nose badly broken and blood pouring. He has no idea what just happened, except that he had no control. He screams out in panic.
Steve collects the unconscious Peter from school and drives him home and puts him to bed to rest and recover from his unexplained but deeply distressing ordeal. Annie ushers Steve to the attic to view the corpse and for him to burn Charlie's sketchbook stating that it is the only way to rid them of their daughters spirit. She insists that he burn it, knowing that she cannot from her previous attempt. Steve initially refuses, believing that his wife has lost her mind and further that it was she who desecrated the grave and moved Ellen’s corpse herself. Annie, out of frustration with her husband, throws the sketchbook into the fire herself, only for the flames to jump to Steve instantly engulfing him in fire.
Peter wakes up sensing that something is not quite right. The house is dark and quiet. He gingerly creeps downstairs closing doors as he goes. He finds his father's charred lifeless body, and is then chased by a now-possessed Annie into the attic where he bolts the door closed behind him. Annie clinging upside down on the ceiling frantically and repeatedly bangs her head against the attic door. Inside the attic, Peter is confronted by followers of Ellen all looking on silently with their aged, naked ashen bodies. Behind him Annie appears, levitated up near the ceiling rafters, cutting off her own head with a wire saw. Peter, horrified by the scene before him jumps out the window to escape and is knocked unconscious upon landing in the garden shrubbery below.
A light pulsates and descends towards Peter's unconscious body. He comes around and spies his mothers levitating headless body as it moves towards and up in to the family treehouse. There he finds Charlie's head sitting on top of a makeshift statue of the demon god Paimon. Joan, the figures seen in the attic, and the headless corpses of Annie and Ellen now all bow down in front of Peter, as he is announced as Paimon.
I would have to say, that for me, 'Hereditary' was not nearly the scarefest I was given to believe having read other Reviews. However, don't let that detract from the storyline, or the look and feel of this ultimately macabre modern day emotional rollercoaster horror offering. The five principle cast members are all terrific - Milly Shapiro (in her feature film debut) as the clucking disturbed dead panned thirteen year old daughter, Alex Wolff as the pot smoking sad eyed simply existing older teenage son, Gabriel Byrne as the stoic just wants a simple happy life husband, Ann Dowd as the do gooder hiding a malevolent secret and then there's Toni Collette who as the wife and centrepiece gives the performance of her career as the mother battling grief on two substantive levels while trying to keep things together under the influence of emotional turmoil, psychological trauma and something dark and sinister that threatens the whole family unit. This plays out more as a family drama during its first two thirds with the horror coming in the form of real emotional upheaval exploited by great lighting, sound effects and camera angles that accentuate every scene. Only the last third of the film starts to become more horrific in the traditional sense as the true meaning of what the family has 'inherited' becomes real. This film is believable, realistic and grounded in a reality that modern day horror genre bending films are increasingly taking advantage of, but all that said, it didn't keep me awake that night, I didn't look under the bed and it didn't keep me thinking long after the credits rolled, unlike 'Paranormal Activity', 'Wolf Creek' and 'Get Out' did. Certainly worth the price of your ticket though.
This film warrants four claps of the clapperboard, from a potential five.
-Steve, at Odeon Online-