Hereditary (2018): Ancestral demons manifested

Hereditary poster

Hereditary is perhaps the greatest horror film of 2018. Perhaps the greatest film of 2018, period. It has the conspiracy element and paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby, but surpasses that film. I was fortunate enough to attend an advance screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in La Vista, Nebraska, followed by a live-streamed Q&A with writer/director Ari Aster and two cast members, Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro. The Alamo staff were kind enough to drop off a complementary desert early during the screening, warning us to avoid eating it if we have nut allergies. You”ll get the joke if you see Hereditary.

It’s difficult to do a proper analysis of the film without giving away major spoilers. However, it would be a disservice to spoil any significant aspect of a new film that is destined to become a classic, and will possibly win major awards. Instead, I will provide an analysis of themes and motifs prevalent in the film, avoiding major plot points that aren’t featured in the official trailers. That said, if you assume you know what will happen based on the trailers, nothing will prepare you for the onslaught of violence and insanity that is the film itself.

If you haven’t already seen them, take the time to view the trailers below, and then read my discussion of motifs and themes in the film itself.

And trailer #2:

Now to get on with a relatively spoiler-free analysis…I will tell you what the film isn’t. It’s not cliched, and it doesn’t follow common horror tropes. It doesn’t take a lazy or cliched approach along the lines of “It was all a dream,” or “It all happened inside one character’s head.” It teases us with those concepts, especially when we see the characters inside a dollhouse, or (early in the film) when Annie (Toni Collette) discusses her family’s history of mental illness. But to my relief, it’s not that kind of film. The ghosts and demons are as real as the mental illness itself.

Power of the ancestors

In the film, Annie carefully hand-crafts miniature homes. One such model is a modern home built on top of increasingly older homes hidden under the foundation, ending in a medieval castle. The implication is that the modern lifestyle we take for granted is built on the foundation of everything our ancestors did before us.

Nature vs. Nurture

With a title like “Hereditary,” you know this theme has to come up. We can inherit a lot of things from our parents: certain forms of mental illness (as Annie discusses), and physical illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. On a less tangible level, we may “inherit” their biases, likes and dislikes.

Some religions and spiritual traditions believe we can inherit generational curses too. Generational curses are mentioned throughout the Bible. One such passage is Deuteronomy 5:9, which states “Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God [am] a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth [generation] of them that hate me.” The “them” we are not to bow down to are the gods and venerated spirits of pagan religions. This is relevant to Hereditary, as the trailer implies the deceased grandmother practiced a form of occultism and had strange “private rituals.” You’ve also seen this concept played out in the Paranormal Activity franchise.

Similarly, there’s the modern New Age concept of “generational contracts” (ask any Akashic Records reader), meaning your ancestors can make major decisions for you, without your knowledge.

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Annie ponders one of her creations

 

Knowing that you don’t have free will won’t save you

One common horror trop that Hereditary does follow is that of a high school or college classroom as a vehicle to explain pertinent concepts to the student character and to the audience alike. We’ve seen it in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Final Destination, and It Follows, to name just a few. Relatively early in Hereditary, a teacher discusses a Greek tragedy in which it seems that the characters have no free will, and this makes their misfortune seem even more tragic. One main character attends this lecture, but this knowledge doesn’t save him, or even mitigate the horrors to come.

This is alluded to again with Annie’s world of miniature homes and figures. The dolls she creates, however lifelike and realistic, have no say in the role they play in the little world she’s created. The same is true for the main characters. Someone or something is pulling their strings and scripting their every move.

Hereditary dead bird

Headless

There is a recurring decapitation motif, both literal and figurative, in Hereditary. In the trailers, we see young Charlie cutting the head off of a dead bird. We also see a brief glimpse of one of Annie’s miniature figures, presumable her son Peter, without his head. There are a lot of other gory things that could have been done just for shocks. Since Ari Aster didn’t get to my tweeted question during the Q&A, I don’t know the answer for certain. I assume the decapitation motif alludes to the characters’ lack of free will. They have literally been severed from their decision-making abilities.

Transplantation of a foreign intelligence

Now that you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve probably guessed that this is some sort of demon possession movie. Again, you will see the symbolism in benign places throughout the film. Just as Annie is obsessed with creating a miniature world, her daughter Charlie builds dolls from found objects. You can see glimpses of these dolls in the trailers, and you will notice that they are “off” in a number of ways, most noticeably that the doll heads don’t correspond with the doll bodies. Not only are the characters separated from their decision-making faculties, it stands to reason that something else is making decisions for them.

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My biggest spoiler so far:

Even the demon itself, allegedly powerful in Hell, doesn’t seem to have free will. When you view its manifestation while within a human host, it seems that the demon doesn’t want to be there. It’s socially awkward, withdrawn, full of nervous tics, and seems bewildered by the humans around it, even by the human cultists who “worship” it. It’s been taken from its natural habitat, and doesn’t seem to know what to think of the strange, sometimes barbaric, behavior of the humans around it. This is my interpretation, and not explicitly stated. If you were a majestic “King of Hell,” would you want to be bothered with mundane and demeaning human responsibilities such as taking an exam at school or working a menial job? Perhaps being trapped in a human body comes with a degree of powerlessness and confusion.

Hereditary is an atypical horror film with atypical tropes, atypical demons, and atypical occultism. You owe it to yourself to see this wildly original, inventive, and cruel film in theaters.

Upgrade: A secular possession film

 

Upgrade poster

Leigh Whannel’s latest film, Upgrade, has been hyped by several reviewers as something of  across between William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the dark sci-fi series Black Mirror. The film lives up to the hype, for the most part. Upgrade is slick and visually stylish, existing in a future that seems so close to our current reality, if only the Baby Boomers had bothered to invest in infrastructure and scientific research. (Just read A Generation of Sociopaths if you don’t believe me.) And if only the transhumanist movement hadn’t become defunct before before biohacking could even become mainstream.

Much of Upgrade seems like a transhumanist cyperpunk fantasy melded with exploitation film revenge narrative. During a mugging, protagonist Grey Trace is paralyzed and his wife is killed. Eron, a Frankensteinian genius, offers to implant a sentient AI chip called STEM into Grey’s spine, allowing him to walk again. In case Eron’s God-complex wasn’t obvious, we get to see him manipulating a miniature storm cloud inside his living room.

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Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace

In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover argued that the body horror genre is essentially the secular humanist version of the demon possession film. Upgrade is no exception. As Grey recovers, he becomes obsessed with finding his wife’s killers. STEM turns him into a killing-machine, and there’s both humor and genuine horror in Grey’s inability to control his own body while STEM mutilates the villains. Grey isn’t the only upgraded human. His enemies have implants such as literal handguns, infrared vision, and the ability to kill an opponent with a single sneeze. The action scenes are fun to watch, and occasionally gruesome. Aside from such creative concepts, much of the Upgrade is carried by the performance of Logan Marshall-Green, whose portrayal of emotional brokenness reminds me of his role in one of my favorite films, The Invitation.

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The only downside of the film is that, with the exception of Grey and STEM, all of the characters seem two-dimensional and are never seriously developed. Perhaps this is a conscious choice, given that the human perspective shouldn’t necessarily be the privileged perspective in this narrative. Without giving major spoilers, the technology in Upgrade isn’t so much of a transhuman dream as a posthuman nightmare, with more in common with the philosophy of Nick Land than that of William Gibson. While the twist ending isn’t entirely unexpected, it subverts our earlier notion of what it means to “upgrade.”

 

We’re Moving!

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Hello, friends of My Horrific Life.

We are moving to a new host, and will be debuting a new look and new format. As a result, our podcast and certain other website features will be temporarily unavailable.

I would like to thank my friend Derek for his work setting up the original My Horrific Life website in 2014, and for his tech support for the past four years. Big thanks also to our podcast guests and supporters.

We will be back soon with creepy new content and new reviews.

Demons (2017): Southern Gothic

Demons poster

Andrew Divoff has been a busy man. He recently starred in Michael Kehoe’s film The Hatred, and is in the process of launching his own brewery. Last Friday, his newest film, Demons(directed by Miles Doleac) was released in theaters and VOD. I can say without reservation that I thoroughly enjoyed Demons, in part because it runs counter to common horror film tropes.

The plot bears some similarity to The Last Exorcism, insofar that a fanatical father requests that a skeptical minister exorcize his daughter, who may or may not be demon-possessed. Divoff portrays the afflicted girl’s father, and he is a scene-stealer in that role. It would be too simplistic to merely label his character, Jasper Grant, as another “bad guy.” Jasper does some awful things to his children, but with good intentions, because he is entirely sincere in his religious beliefs. This element could have come off as campy or otherwise derailed the film, but Divoff handles it beautifully. The character’s love for his children shines through enough that you can’t hate Jasper, even though his religious beliefs are destructive.

Andrew Divoff as Jasper Grant

Demons runs counter to horror film tropes in its depiction of women, particularly the character Lara (Kristina Emerson). Introduced in the present-day timeline as a friend of Jasper’s surviving daughter Kayleigh, Lara initially seems like the sort of character who is written out early. That is, she spends a lot of time naked, has purple hair, and has a lot of unconventional ideas about spirituality and social norms. In fact, she is a psychologically healthy character whose spiritual views and lifestyle serve as a counterbalance to Jasper’s shame-based religious attitudes.

There is also a twist ending that I flat-out did not expect, but if fully in keeping with the fact that many characters are not what they seem. This is certainly true of Father Colin (portrayed by writer-director Miles Doleac), who is skeptical that a demon possession is actually taking place. Father Colin also goes against expectations by leaving the priesthood to marry the afflicted girl’s sister, Kayleigh (Lindsay Anne Williams).

You won’t find many jump-scares in Demons, but you will find solid psychological and religious horror.

Check out the trailer for Demons below and order your copy today.

My real life horror story

My regular readers may have noticed that I haven’t been too active this past month. It’s because of a family emergency that ended up being the most horrific day of my life.

Around two weeks ago, I was going to drive my mom to a doctor’s appointment. While getting into my car, she slipped and fell, apparently twisting her leg on the way down. Because of the position of my car door, I didn’t initially see that her leg was broken. Once I did, it felt like I couldn’t respond quickly enough. Her leg wasn’t “just” broken; both bones were protruding from her skin and her foot was almost completely detached from her ankle. Quite a lot of blood was spurting out of the wound, and I was terrified that she was going to bleed to death before the paramedics arrived. To top things off, my repeated calls to 911 kept being disconnected before I could even speak to a dispatcher, making the situation seem even more like a bad dream. Even though I am Red Cross certified in First Aid and CPR, I had no first aid supplies or even a belt to use as a tourniquet, so had to squeeze the wound with one hand and dial 911 with the other. I’m not at all a squeamish person, having worked and interned in funeral homes and coroner’s offices. But it’s an entirely different feeling when someone’s life is in your hands, and that person happens to be a loved one.

I’m extremely grateful to the strangers who stopped to help my mom while the paramedics were en route. One was a first responder who was out for a walk on his day off work. Others were nurses who worked at a rehab center across the street. Their presence truly feels like divine intervention.

My mom has a long road of recovery ahead of her, and some of her immediate needs pulled me out of my daily routine, including writing for My Horrific Life. As things become more stable, I’ll make up for my absence with new interviews, reviews, and exclusive news from some of my favorite personalities in the horror genre.

Exclusive photos: The Hatred Signing at Dark Delicacies

On September 16, Michael Kehoe, Andrew Divoff, Sarah Davenport, Amanda Wyss, Gabrielle Bourne, Musetta Vander, and Gary Tunnicliffe appeared at Dark Delicacies to promote their new film, The Hatred. Michael Kehoe and Andrew Divoff were kind enough to share exclusive photos from the event.

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Left to right: Sarah Davenport, Dark Del, Amanda Wyss, and Michael Kehoe.
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Cast and crew of The Hatred had a fun and busy evening of signing copies of the DVD for fans.
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Sarah Davenport portrayed Regan in the film.
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Left to right: Amanda Wyss, Andrew Divoff, Musetta Vander, and Michael Kehoe.
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Andrew Divoff is hanging out with leading ladies Gabrielle Bourne and Sarah Davenport.

 

The Hatred (2017): "In death we are free"

The Hatred, (directed by Michael G. Kehoe and starring Andrew Divoff, David Naughton, Amanda Wyss, Sarah Davenport, Gabrielle Bourne, Bailey Corman, Alisha Wainwright, Nina Siemaszko, Shae Smolik, and Darby Walker) was released on DVD/Blu yesterday. I’m very excited about the upcoming podcast interview with Michael Kehoe, and Andrew Divoff’s upcoming announcement of his new business venture, Three Marm Brewing. In the meantime, I’ll share my thoughts about the film itself.

Without  revealing major spoilers, the first part of the film takes place in 1968, in which former Nazi soldier Samuel Sears (Andrew Divoff) has assimilated into American society as a reclusive farmer. He receives an amulet in the mail from one of his Nazi associates, and the amulet prompts a series of violent events at the farmhouse. In the present day, a group of young women on a weekend retreat at the old farmhouse encounter the amulet’s evil influence along with the ghosts of Sears’ family.

The trailer looked massively creepy, but the scenes involving the four young women in the present-day scenes made me a bit worried that the film itself would involve a bunch of shallow, bubble-headed bimboes being terrorized in typical slasher film fashion. Fortunately, I was very wrong about this point. The young women are actually intelligent and inquisitive. One of the funniest moments that counters audience expectations is when the blonde Samantha (Bailey Corman, the niece of Roger Corman) not only recognizes a gruesome artifact as an 11th century Viking death mask, but also exclaims, “I’m in heaven!” Later, Samantha is revealed to be a scholar and serious history buff. Once the malevolent supernatural activity really kicks off, the young women react by researching the history and properties of the amulet rather than becoming hysterical.

Andrew Divoff as the Nazi Samuel Sears

The film’s performances are solid. Darby Walker is great as Sears’ daughter, Alice, who meets an unpleasant end early in the film. Andrew Divoff is phenomenal as the ex-Nazi Samuel Sears. He’s as menacing as you would expect, based on Andrew’s other bad-guy roles, but he also shows some sensitivity and emotional vulnerability in some of the scenes, adding complexity to his overbearing, authoritarian patriarch character. There  are also some unanswered questions about this character and his relationship to the local Sheriff. It seems like the Sheriff has some skeletons in his own closet, and Sears leverages this knowledge to prevent the Sheriff from conducting any serious investigation into Alice’s disappearance, or from outing Sears as a former Nazi. 

Don’t go into this movie expecting a T&A slasher film, or even blood and gore. (Though there is a flashback sequence that makes me wonder if Sears disemboweled and taxidermied Alice.) Instead, it’s a character-centric ghost story with an emphasis on atmosphere and spookiness. Pick up your copy of The Hatred on Blu-ray today! Also, those of you in Southern California can meet  director Michael Kehoe, FX designer Gary Tunnicliffe, and cast members Andrew Divoff, Sarah Davenport,  Amanda Wyss, Gabrielle Bourne, Musetta Vander, and Nina Siemaszko at Dark Delicacies on September 16, 2017.