Anatomy of Ari Aster’s Hereditary
In Episode 1 of our Anatomy of Horror series, we dig into Ari Aster’s 2018 debut masterpiece, Hereditary. In this instant classic we are immersed into the life of Annie and her family after the death of her mother. Her mother’s passing seemingly has little effect on her, however, the insufferable tragedies that follow do. The unbearable weight of the pain drives Annie to believe that something evil is at play, but to those closest to her, it seems as though she is losing her mind.
Hereditary quickly gained a fan base, and with it came hype. It was quickly hailed as the second coming of The Exorcist by many critics. To a lesser film this could have been the death knell – slipping it into obscurity or worse yet, turning it into a joke. Of course, not everyone was convinced of its excellence, but so is the life of a horror film. The best horror films are inherently divisive: they shock, they offend, they scare. Hereditary checks all of these boxes, and as more time passes, the more it is appreciated. So, what makes Hereditary so good?
This certainly wouldn’t be the first horror film to hold up a dark mirror to the nuclear family. However, it is saying something pretty unique. As we will soon discuss, Ari Aster’s film impeccable language tells a tale about the dysfunction we pass down from generation to generation. Though we never meet Annie’s mother, her presence is felt from the very first frame. We learn that Annie’s relationship with her mother was strained at best. We also learn that her mother was controlling, so much so that Steve, Annie’s husband, had to set boundaries with the elder matriarch. However, we also know that Annie is controlling. She spends a good portion of the film creating these miniature worlds, places she escapes to and holds dominion over when her real world spirals out control.
The question: “did Annie have a choice at all or was her dysfunction always at the wheel?” Dysfunction is traditionally generational so the answer is probably no, she didn’t have a choice. When Annie steps away from her miniature world and attempts to take control in the real world, the consequences are devastating.
Right from the very first shot, Aster’s style and overall vision is on display. The eye of the camera opens, looking out of a window at a treehouse. In a slow, continuous motion it turns to show us a room full of miniature structures, the fruits of Annie’s labor. The eye stops on a house, the miniature version of the house that Annie and her family live in. Then, we slowly move in. Closer and closer we enter into a miniature room… or so we think. We stop and see that someone is sleeping in the bed. After a brief moment we hear a knock at the door and in comes Steve, the family patriarch.
So, Aster first statement is letting us know that not everything is as it seems. The pace of the shot is slow and creeping, so there will be no sleight of hand, only that the omniscience of the camera cannot be trusted.
Moments later, we are shown the real, life size house. In the next scene we are immediately reminded of the first shot of the miniature house. Like the first shot, Steve walks through the door, but this time he is followed by the rest of the family. Slowly, the eye of the camera creeps in on the action, begging us to make a connection to the film’s opening shot. Is it possible that Aster accidentally filmed this scene exactly as he did that first scene? Not a chance.
Aster’s Little World
It seems as though Aster’s first language is film and what he is saying is that this family is not in control. By first showing us the miniature house, and then giving us a visual comparison to the real house, we are being told that this family is but toys living in someone else’s creation. To reinforce this theme of control we constantly find ourselves alone with Annie as she creates these miniature worlds with miniature people.
Aster assaults our eyes with a barrage of visuals that constantly back up all of the themes introduced: Severe Trauma, mental illness, dysfunctional family, loss, paranoia, control, conspiracy, and groupthink. By visually creating for us a stable universe to witness, Aster masterfully weaves together generational dysfunction and horror. Click here to watch Anatomy of Horror Ep.1: Hereditary