Adams and Jefferson on Movies: I Feel Possessed
In which two old friends discuss Hereditary, The VVitch and Rosemary’s Baby, among other things.
Watching Hereditary brings many thoughts and feelings to the fore. There is a slow building tension that works its way through the first part of the story. We know Grandma’s gone, and she was a big pain in Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) ass. Gabriel Byrne, as her husband Steve, is trying to keep the ball in play. The kids, well, they’re unique. Peter (Wolf), is a kid who’s in between bong hits, and maybe looking to hook up with a girl. Charlie (Shapiro) appears to be touched.
The film is really interesting during the first act. Collette gathers every bit of dignity she has and pushes through her grief and attempts to keep up the demand for her quite unique artwork. The pieces are strewn about their very nice house. They are quite accurate doll house sets. The scenes they depict represent something that parallels the note she uncovers from a pile of her mother’s things.
Soon we’re catapulted into a different reality by one of the most shocking scenes I remember seeing. The aftermath is almost as surprising. Nothing in the preceding act leads us to think that it’s coming, and it immediately changes everything.
Without giving anything away, what were your impressions of the moment?
It is a truly shocking moment. In a way it basically signifies to the audience that all bets are off. This is not just some by-the-numbers horror movie. This scene says “don’t think you’ve got it all figured out, because you don’t.” That alone is refreshing. I think it serves to keep the audience more off-kilter for the duration.
I think this is a film worthy of a couple of viewings. For the attentive viewer, there are plenty of visual cues that foreshadow things to come. That is another aspect I enjoyed, the very careful visual plotting of the film. Every detail is meticulous, much like the miniature tableau that Collette’s character constructs.
I agree that the first act is very engaging. And even though later on the film does explore some typical horror tropes (like seances) it still manages to feel fresh most of the time. What do you think?
I appreciate many sequences in the film. The bird that hits the window, what happens to it and then seeing it’s picture later when Steve looks through the little book of drawings. What could have been a touching moment is turned on its ear and made into dread for the viewer.
The visuals are not cheap tricks either. The light in the window of Peter’s room is practical, but it represents something ominous. As do each of the tiny dollhouse scenes.
The gradual inclusion of Ann Dowd’s Joanie is one of the more unique ways of bringing menace to the fore from a place one wouldn’t expect in that group of people who have lost loved ones. She’s literally given no lines the first time we see her.
Alex Wolf is perhaps the biggest surprise of the film. His moodiness early on is unremarkable. If anything, one would expect that he would be one of the early victims of the curse. His performance reminds one of a frog in slowly boiling water.
As masterful as the directors are at putting together unforgettable visuals, they seem to follow a tradition of a somewhat overwrought score. This one, like the score of other films dealing with the topic of possession. The screeching chords push the feeling of dread into a sort of oppression that is at times overwhelming. The effect damages the effect of some of the last act for me, and seems to be somewhat of a miscalculation.
Like I said, this reminded me of The VVitch. Either of these films would have been closer to a masterpiece had they dialed it back even a little.
What do you think?
Yes, I agree about dialing it back. We were talking about the intrusive score while we were still sitting in the theater. This trend in horror/suspense films of sustaining one musical tone over a long stretch, sometimes several minutes, is already becoming overwrought. It loses its power if used too much, and just becomes distracting. In its own way, it is just an update of the sudden burst of music accompanying a scary moment that was common in the 80’s and 90’s. It is just another way of using the music to tell us what to feel, rather than just adding atmosphere.
It is an interesting comparison to draw between this film and The VVitch. They are both good films, but what sets them apart is their originality. There are plenty of good genre films being made these days, but not many that you can call “original.” After all, almost by definition a horror movie is supposed to follow a formula. Some deviation is allowed, but certain elements are almost expected. And these two films maintain some originality.
I also enjoyed the way the Joan character was written and performed. Her part, although small, is one of the most integral to the whole plot. As her character developed, I began to think of Ruth Gordon’s Oscar-winning performance in Rosemary’s Baby. Certainly Ruth Gordon can’t be evil? She looks like everybody’s grandma.
It’s an astute comparison and I think its pretty darn close. Like Gordon, Dowd has been a strong character actor for many years. Roles like this need someone who commands the scene without histrionics and who couldn’t notice these two after a few minutes on the camera.
One difference in the characterizations is that Dowd kind of drifts back into the mix towards the end, while Gordon’s Minnie maintains her character and is aggressively kind to Farrow’s distraught mother well past the point of needing to be. I don’t know the source material well enough to understand if this was intentional, but it comes across shrewdly onscreen.
Speaking of soundtracks, I did notice the soundtrack to Rosemary’s Baby had a similar blaring quality in moments of tension. This may have been indicative of the time, but if one listens to the reveal of her child in the following scene, the music is awful as what we imagine the powerless Rosemary must feel.
Each of the leads, Farrow, Collette and The VVitch’s Anya Taylor Joy deal with varying degrees of societal powerlessness on their path towards the inevitable. Rosemary’s compromising position of pregnancy is something that Annie had been through twice before and it is a trajectory that Thomasin seems destined towards. That each of these play out differently is a testament to the originality of each film. None of the films follow a similar path to their conclusion, even if each presents similar touchstones.
All three present the battle between modernity and tradition, no matter how horrific either choice can be for the feminine archetype.
I hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to the music in Rosemary’s Baby before, but after you mentioned it I did begin to notice. The best one can say about it is that it’s certainly not a typical film score of the time, but it’s not always well suited to film.
Regarding your last comments, wow! You’ve hit on something really powerful here. All three of these women in their own way try to control the situation they find themselves in, and at some point all seem to be in the driver’s seat. Yet ultimately, were they prisoners all along? Was there no escaping the endgame? And do the movies have something similar to say about the nature of evil? All three movies have a somewhat similar ending in that regard.
These three movies all have a very different setting, a different visual aesthetic, and different stories, and yet one could write a generic one-sentence summary that could apply equally to all three. Seeing all three movies in a 24-hour period has deepened my appreciation for all of them. If I’m ever asked which is my favorite Polanski film, I immediately say Chinatown. And you gotta admit, that’s a pretty damn good film. And yet, when rewatching Rosemary’s Baby, I can find very little to criticize. Fortunately in the case of the other two films, they are directorial debuts, and I’m sure we will see more promising films from them in the future.
Eggers and Aster really do show some promise. If limitations of the soundtrack are the main criticisms one can levy against their early work, they’re going to be just fine. Funds are harder to come by. Often the film maker just does the best they can with who they know.
I want to go further in the film studying the male “leaders” of the family. This is an interesting contrast, but there are many similarities here, too.
First of all we have the magnificent Cassavetes as “Guy” Woodhouse. He’s a casual sexist and almost pedopheliac in the relationship with Mary. To him, she is a child. Then he willingly gives her up for a bargain to the satanists. He wants what they promise. What’s one child born to him when they can have others? He is a fool, even if he becomes a king.
William (Ineson) is a man against the world. He is seen as the leader, but he’s powerless. He’s an honest man willing to take the hard road. While his wife is in grief, he takes away the one piece of silver she has for hunting supplies. The one bargain he makes is to let his daughter take blame for this, and he loses everything.
Steve Graham (Byrne) is almost a shadow in his family. His effort is for unity, and he will ignore many things for the hope that his family will just bond together. In this way, he bargains away his chance at truth when he sits on the knowledge of the desecration of the grave. When he finally reveals why, it once more is too late. He is complicit in the family’s demise by the sin of omission.
It seems like men’s weakness and pride tied to each story, even though all three are handled in such totally different ways.
What do you think? And does this extend to the intended targets for our demons? What is the truth that binds them?
I do agree that all the male characters’ weaknesses had a major impact on the outcome of the stories. Guy Woodhouse wants the glory of being a popular actor. You are right, he does treat Rosemary like a child. He is so sure of himself as he begins to manipulate her. And yet, he is dependent on others. Every time Rosemary gives him some information (such as her impending lunch date with “Hutch”) he suddenly has to go out for ice cream. Later on we realize he was running next door to the Castavets to get his instructions. I think his most telling moment is when Rosemary walks in the room at the end. He sees her, starts to open his mouth, does a sort of double take, then gets up and stands in the doorway with his head down. This man who was so cocksure about everything all of a sudden can’t look her in the eyes.
So Woodhouse was actually the target of the Castavets more so than Rosemary; she was essentially just a vessel. By the time she became aware that something was amiss, it was too late. With regards to The VVitch I think Thomasin was the target all along. William is probably the most honorable of the three men. He at least intends to do well by his family. I don’t know if a different course of actions could have changed his journey at all. Gabriel Byrne as Steve is an interesting case. Byrne plays him with a world weariness. I almost get the sense that Steve knows at the beginning of this film that his family dynamic is being pulled apart. I don’t think he ever feels in control, nor does he try to be. The look on his face tells me that he knows it’s not going to end well, but he has played his hand and he is just going to ride it out. Would his honesty at an earlier point make a difference? Again, he was never a target of evil. He was just some guy who might get in the way.
Even if women are the intended vessels of evil in all three films, they definitely had help along the way. It is the sins of the entire family that help to bring about their downfall.
Exceptional analysis on Steve. His parenthetical existence he hopes will allow him to escape the sickness swirling around him. Like William, he really does love both of his children, and his wife too, even if he’s not sure what she ultimately will do next.
Each of the targets in my view are completely innocent, at least in their own mind. The baby doesn’t really have a mind, or a will of its own. There is nothing for it to be except born and raised. I think they tried to cover it with a sequel on TV and later in a book, but it is irrelevant to this story.
Thomasin is a strange case. At first, I thought the whole thing was a surprise to her and she really just accepts what comes her way. Re-watching it brings a different awareness in the idea that she possibly already succumbed and really acted as the agent of her family’s demise.
Peter’s will is not insignificant, but he’s really waiting to arrive as well. The emphasis in the family has always been on Charlie for reasons he does not even fathom. He has no understanding that he was shielded from his grandmother in the womb. When he discovers that his mother becomes a vessel after her grandmother passes, it’s really too late for him. He never had a chance.
The wisdom in the three different tellings of essentially the same tale is astounding. It puts the rest of the films in the category of descent into somewhat a different category.
I can’t wait to see them again, because I feel that it teaches us something about truth in ourselves versus what would seem to be something offering us a break from those truths in life outside of Eden.
That is an excellent summation. I look forward to seeing them again as well. Just as I look forward to further movie viewing, and further discourse with you. And so, I bid you good day.