Basic setup: There is a woman named Annie (Toni Collette) whose mother Ellen Taper Leigh has just died. Annie has a husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her eldest child, Peter (Alex Wolff), and her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). And RIGHT from the get-go, we know something is...off.
Besides the family seeming oddly cold to one-another, the daughter Charlie is a kid who has a...different...look, sleeps in her treehouse in the cold, makes clicking sounds, draws weird drawings, creates weird, handmade figurines, and sees THINGS. So, she's the weird kid who will start lots of trouble, right? Uhhh...we'll come back to that...
At the funeral, Annie mentions her mother was private -- she had private things, private friends, and private rituals. So, we know something's up with HER, too...
And that's when the weird stuff starts happening.
Charlie sees weird lights, people talking to her, her grandmother(?) sitting in fire -- that kind of normal stuff. Meanwhile, her brother Peter is in class while his english teacher talks about story elements -- things like foreshadowing.
THIS SCENE IS VITAL TO UNDERSTANDING HOW TO VIEW THE FILM.
First time writer/director Ari Aster is TELLING YOU RIGHT UP FRONT to pay attention to everything because he's telling you that he WILL OBVIOUSLY TELEGRAPH THE ENTIRE FILM. He's not hiding it -- he's telling you this will be obvious.
...this feels like a great time to bring up the audience reaction to the film...
"Hereditary" has a D+ Cinemascore and sits at 52% on Rotten Tomatoes with audiences. Critics, though, have it at 94%. That is a bit of a difference, isn't it?
So...why do audiences hate the film but critics love it? Easy: this is a psychologically-driven, old-school horror film without jump scares. And it's WEIRD.
Popular horror films now are usually a collection of jump scares masquerading as horror, lacking any deep unsettling imagery or themes. And while people keep comparing "Hereditary" to "The Exorcist" it is NOTHING like "The Exorcist." "Hereditary" is more akin to "Rosemary's Baby," the original "The Wicker Man" and "Don't Look Now"...only "Hereditary" has more disturbing visuals.
All of those other films named are slow burns, letting the plot crawl along, allowing the viewer to become sucked into the psyche of the main character. You spend time with them and see things through their eyes and the slower pace allows the dread to build and build. None of those movies have 'horrific' imagery in the traditional sense; no ghosts, ghouls, blood & guts, or any of that jazz. It lets the horror slowly seep into the back of your head, filling it with unease...and modern audiences HATE that.
You know what else audiences hate? Violence against children...
About 1/3 of the way through the film, Annie makes Peter take his little sister to a party. Charlie doesn't want to go, but Peter takes her anyways. The moment they get to the party, we see people chopping up a MOUNTAIN of walnuts -- and since Charlie's nut allergy was mentioned TWICE earlier, you know what's going to happen. The foreshadowing isn't subtle because the director already told you earlier it wouldn't be.
So, Charlie eats some cake that has nuts in it, causing an allergic reaction. Peter races her to the hospital, but on the way, Charlie leans out of the car to get air right as Peter swerves around a dead deer in the road. The car gets too close to a power-line and Charlie is decapitated.
Hear that? That's the sound of the audience turning on the film.
Even I couldn't believe they did that. The marketing campaign is BUILT around Charlie; to kill her off so early said to me, "you THOUGHT you knew where it was going...but now you don't."
Also, I have to say, when the accident happens, you don't see a gruesome view of her losing her head -- you don't even see the body. The rest of the scene (and the next several, for that matter) are played from Peter's POV. He can't stomach to look back at what he did, so he just drives home and goes to bed, leaving the body in the car. The next morning, we HEAR Annie's screams.
Then, out of NO WHERE, it cuts to a big, bold close up in the middle of the day, to Charlie's mangled, decapitated head, covered in ants. It was UNCOMFORTABLE.
...so...what do I LOVE about this film...?
First, Toni Collette. She's always good, but here...damn. She's magnificent. I know horror movies never win awards, but she NEEDS to for this. She's SO SO good.
Second, the cinematography. I haven't seen anything else Pawel Pogorzelski has shot, but I'll be paying attention to him from now on because this movie has a look and feel I want to live in.
Third, the music. This movie's soundtrack used tones so low, I wasn't sure it was coming from our theater, at first. But then, I realized they might be trying some infrasound-type stuff, to make the audience feel uneasy just from the low frequencies. If this was intentional: awesome. If not: who cares? It worked!
...now, what I didn't like...
There's very little I didn't care for, actually. There are two parts I think might have been changed late in post-production. First, after Peter throws himself out of the window at the end, you can see a shadow leave his body and then this blue/white orb from earlier enter it. When he stands up, he makes the clicking sound. I'm GUESSING the shadow and orb VFX were done after a test screening, because people didn't know Peter's body had been taken over by Charlie from the click sound alone. While everything else looked so clean and good, this looked cheaper...like it was an afterthought or rush. Maybe I'm wrong...
Also, the VERY END of the film with it's crazy music had me going...until this voiceover started, explaining everything. I didn't need the explanation; I got what was going on. But, again, I think some viewers in an early screening DIDN'T, so they had to use VO to spell it out for everyone else.
Look, I GET why people don't like this film. This isn't a movie where you get some jump scares and then forget about it after you've left the theater. This film is harder to digest and process...and this isn't one you'll put on with your friends for a 'scary movie night.' "Hereditary" is the movie you tell someone to watch because you want to see their face afterwards; where they kinda don't know what to say or feel.
This is one of my favorite horror films. Period.
Also...if you get why this song could be paired perfectly with a horror film, you'll dig "Hereditary."