Hereditary, the latest in a string of successful art-house horror movies from A24, has quite a conversation-inspiring ending; one that, arguably, draws influence from three of the best horror movies ever made.
Critics love director Ari Aster's film, but it has a D+ CinemaScore, which is the film equivalent of an exit poll. So the moviegoing public at large was not a fan of Hereditary, and that dichotomy got a lot of people talking about the movie, especially that ending.
So let's talk about it.
**Spoiler Alert: There are spoilers for Hereditary below**
Much like 1973's The Exorcist, Hereditary saves most of its high-octane supernatural horror for its third act. And much like 1968's Rosemary's Baby and 1973's The Wicker Man, Hereditary's final moments involve explicit, vocal explanations of what you are seeing on screen.
One of the things many critics (and some long-time horror fans) love about Hereditary is how it's such a throwback to films from the '60s and '70s, when horror movies were more interested in slowly building tension rather than relying on jump scares.
But, record scratch, I don't think Hereditary's ending works, and, the more I think about the movies it's influenced by, the more I find Hereditary lacking by comparison.
HEREDITARY VS. THE EXORCIST
The Exorcist is a story about how one young girl's descent into supernatural madness brings a mother and her scientific reason to her knees while simultaneously answering one doubtful priest's prayers to know if there really is a God in the most terrifying way possible.
Everything that happens in the first two acts of The Exorcist is in service of that story and where it leads. When we finally arrive in Regan's bedroom and her head begins to spin, spewing pea soup all the while, the weight of that visual mayhem is truly felt. We absolutely believe that Chris MacNeil, no matter how much she loves her daughter, is powerless in the face of pure, Satanic evil. And we have no idea if Father Karras has the spiritual fortitude to succeed, either.
As a result, everything that happens in that room at the end of The Exorcist is emotionally earned. The conclusion and the way it simultaneously brings catharsis and uncertainty is earned because of the way that third act executes everything the first two acts set up.
Hereditary, by comparison, lacks a clear vision. In theory, it is the story of how one woman's death sets off a chain reaction that leads to the supernatural degradation of her family, but the individual beats and set pieces don't connect.
We spend so much of Hereditary following Annie (Toni Collette) as she tries to unravel the mystery that's happening around her. Annie is the closest thing we have to a protagonist, yet we are provided with no explanation for why her motivations and thoughts change so completely at the end beyond the implication that she's lost her mind.
Likewise, Annie's disconnection from her husband, Steve, makes it so his fiery demise is more visually exciting than it is emotionally affecting.
The only other character we start to really understand enough to relate with is Annie's son, Peter (Alex Wolff), but the transition towards him being our protagonist happens so late in the film that it feels jarring.
So many things exist just to scare, but lack substance: Charlie's incessant clicking, Annie's house sculptures, the ghostly apparitions of Annie's mother, Ellen, and, later, Charlie. What purpose to the larger narrative do these elements serve? How are they in service to the overall story? I don't think they are.
By contrast, the purposes of Joan's seance, the mysterious cult, and the identity of the demon, Paimon, are made explicitly clear, which brings us to Hereditary's other two cinematic influences.
HEREDITARY VS. ROSEMARY'S BABY AND THE WICKER MAN
Hereditary ends with the reveal that Joan is a member of a Satanic cult who, ultimately, succeeds in their goal of transferring Charlie's soul into Peter's body. They do this because Charlie is actually Paimon, one of the kings of hell, and Paimon needed a strong, male body in order to have influence over the Earth. The rest of the family is dead and the cult will be showered in riches.
All of this is explained, in voiceover, at the close of the film. We'll come back to that in a moment.
Rosemary's Baby, in addition to playing host to every anxiety of mid 20th-century satantic panic, is about the terror of motherhood and childbirth. Pregnancy on its own, just the unpredictable transformations it forces on a body, are terrifying.
But the scariest part of Rosemary's Baby is its conclusion. When Roman declares, in the most direct and literal way possible, "God is dead, Satan lives," Rosemary cannot deny the truth of her child's lineage. Just like in Hereditary, cultists lay the facts out to the audience in plain, spoken English.
It's not them that are so terrifying however, but Rosemary herself, who, faced with the chance to grab her Satan spawn and hurl her and he out the window to their deaths below, instead quietly rocks him to sleep, smiling all the while.
Every mother, deep down, fears that her child could bring pain and suffering to others, but the real terror comes in the knowledge that she will love them anyway. The textual explanation Rosemary and, by proxy, we are given, regardless of how supernatural in nature, still carries with it this subtextual parallel which helps Rosemary's Baby stick the landing.
The Wicker Man is a story about Sergeant Howie, a Christian police officer who is tricked into coming to an island where he ultimately serves as human sacrifice in a fiery, pagan ritual.
Again, just like with Hereditary and Rosemary's Baby, there is a voice at the conclusion, in this case Lord Summerisle's, who speaks the explanation of Howie's fate. In this instance, the terror comes from the revelation that it is Howie's own actions, his hubris and Christian hypocrisy which led him to his doom.
Moreover, despite Howie's claims as the torch is lit that his lord and savior, Jesus Christ, will save his immortal soul, Howie's panicked screams as he is burned alive reveal that he has no such faith. The Wicker Man brings to the surface the greatest fear every religious person holds — that their belief is wrong, that there is no afterlife, and death really is the end.
What makes Roman's and Lord Summerisle's spoken explanations work in their respective films is the way each protagonist reacts to their revelations.
In Hereditary, by contrast, Joan's revelation is said to Paimon, a king of hell. There's no question of what Paimon will do, no choice, just that strange clucking of the tongue to punctuate the end of the story. We, as an audience are left with no other questions, no larger meaning, just a dead family and the inevitability of hell on Earth.
Is that bleak? Yes. Absolutely. But is Hereditary as emotionally affecting as the films it is influenced by? I don't think so. And while I very much doubt the average moviegoer could verbalize why they collectively left Hereditary with a D+ CinemaScore beyond, "I didn't like it," it is possible that, instinctively, they could sense the absence of that deeper meaning.
Or, maybe, I just don't get it.
I leave it to you. Friends, Romans, Summerislemen: leave me your comments! What did you think of Hereditary and its ending?