[Editor’s note: This article includes some spoilers for the film “Hereditary.”]
Reacting to Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” on social media, Barry Jenkins noted that the film included “one of the most visceral moments” he ever experienced in a movie theater. The “Moonlight” director did not mention which scene he was talking about, but anyone who contributed to the film’s $13 million opening weekend knows there’s one specific event that leaves you so shocked it’s hard to pick your jaw up off the floor. It occurs at the end of the first act and marks a horror movie twist to rival “Psycho.”
Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has forced her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) to bring the family’s youngest daughter Charlie (Milly Shaprio) to a high school house party. The emotionally detached Peter leaves his sister alone at the party so he can go off to smoke weed with a girl he’s trying to impress. Charlie ends up eating a piece of cake containing nuts to which she is allergic. Charlie then falls into anaphylactic shock. Peter reacts by putting Charlie in the back of his car and racing to the hospital.
As Peter speeds down the highway, Aster unleashes a masterclass in shock cinema. Every great twist needs great build up, and Aster delivers by ratcheting up the tension with claustrophobic cuts that grow tighter as Charlie gasps for air. The highway lights glaring into the car create a rhythm of menacing shadows. The tension in the car becomes as insufferable as Charlie’s breathing. At one point, Aster cuts to a shot from the front of the car as it speeds down the highway. Not since David Lynch in “Lost Highway” or “Twin Peaks” has a road appeared more terrifying.
The scene culminates in a traumatic series of events: Unable to breathe, Charlie lowers her window for air and sticks her head outside. Her face ends up colliding with a telephone pole and…she’s decapitated. The moment arrives with a bone-crunching noise so disturbing it’s impossible to forget. Aster then smash cuts the audio to silence, forcing you to experience the shock as Peter feels it. “Hereditary” is so overwhelming and horrific in the sustained tension and sudden climax of this one scene that you wouldn’t be faulted for calling it one of the most brutal films you’ve ever seen.
In addition to its superb craftsmanship, the major reason the twist works so well is because of A24’s brilliant stroke of misdirection in the film’s marketing. In the age of social media spoilers, it’s a miracle Charlie’s death wasn’t revealed at any point between the movie’s Sundance premiere in January and its nationwide release in June.
A24 set up the twist by making Charlie the driving force of the film’s entire marketing campaign: Shapiro’s face and menacing glare were front and center on every poster, an entire trailer centered around Charlie was released in April, and a viral marketing stunt was created by giving Charlie her own Etsy profile where people could purchase her creepy toy dolls.
A24 declined to comment for this story, but it’s not hard to tell the studio worked overtime to turn Charlie into a horror movie child on par with Regan from “The Exorcist,” Damien from “The Omen,” and Danny from “The Shining.” The marketing gave off the impression Charlie was the center of “Hereditary,” just as Janet Leigh was to “Psycho.” Killing your marketed star in the first act is not an original storytelling decision, but “Hereditary” proves it’s a twist that still works when it’s unspoiled.
To see just how well A24 hid the twist, go back and watch the movie’s official trailer. The clip begins with a shot of the Graham family at Charlie’s funeral, although it was marketed as the service for Annie’s mother, Ellen. So much of the movie’s trailer is misdirection to conceal Charlie’s death and its aftermath. Numerous images of the family grieving over Charlie are marketed as the family mourning Ellen or reacting to something supernatural. Following the first act twist, “Hereditary” becomes far more unpredictable and dangerous than its trailer suggested.
In an interview, Aster told IndieWire he was not involved with the marketing, but he praised A24 for putting Charlie front and center. When Charlie dies, the movie changes in an instant, just as Aster envisioned it. The filmmaker said he wanted viewers to feel like they had been dropped into a new movie beginning with the second act, and the marketing helped the film achieve that goal.
“It’s something we were talking about from the beginning,” Aster said about making Charlie the face of “Hereditary,” referring to A24’s marketing gurus as “fucking geniuses.” During their meetings, it was clear they agreed on the approach to revealing the story. “We really wanted to preserve this twist,” he said. “I’m so excited about the way A24 handled it. It feels like the movie couldn’t have handled it in a smarter way. I’m curious as to how people will handle the twist.”
In an interview with IndieWire last week, Alex Wolff told IndieWire he still can’t get over it. The 20-year-old actor referred to Charlie’s death as “a jaw-dropping, just completely upsetting moment” that proved to be the movie’s game changer.
“That was like, holy shit,” Wolff said. “I knew [the film] was gonna be twisted, like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is twisted, and I knew pretty early on there was an ominous tone to it. but when that thing happens it just tears the whole world and movie apart. It just tears up the rule book. And that’s a thing completely different than I’ve ever seen in a movie.”
From the second Charlie dies, any preconceived ideas the viewer had about what kind of film “Hereditary” would be based on the marketing and the reviews is destroyed (credit to film critics for also preserving the twist). Movies in the 21st century are so often spoiled by their own marketing or by reviews that no surprises are left in store for the audience (studio tentpoles release so many trailers it feels like 90% of a movie’s footage is seen before the release). By killing Charlie off and keeping it a secret, Aster and A24 force the viewer into 90 minutes of the unknown, and there’s nothing more terrifying than that.
“Hereditary” is now playing in theaters nationwide.
—Additional reporting by Kate Erbland and Chris O’Falt