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Film

Anatomy of a Scene: Ari Aster and the horrifying 'Hereditary' decapitation

@Russellisation

Most movies save their killer blow for the final moment of the third act, bookending the film with a shocking revelation or definitive emotional marker. Hereditary is no normal film, however, and the American creative Ari Aster is no normal director, placing the movie’s most horrific moment at the end of the first act, making way for a film that deals with grief, loss, regret, emotional torment and mental illness.

Careful, measured and artistic, Aster’s modern horror masterpiece accesses a deeper plain of consciousness, playing on fears we never even knew we had, boxing this terror together with ingenious use of cinematography and sound. This is perfectly illustrated in the decapitation scene that punctuates Hereditary a third of the way through the film. 

Rushing his younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro), in anaphylactic shock, to the hospital after neglecting her at a party, Peter (Alex Wolff) drives through the darkness of the open highway at 80mph to get her help as quickly as possible. Perfectly carried out with careful pacing and a cinematic fearlessness behind the camera, it is the authenticity of this iconic scene that makes it such a memorable moment. 

Leaving the party with haste, Charlie is thrown into the back seat of the car and Aster triggers the start of the intense music that mimics the tribal drums, recalling the family cult that fuels the film’s horror. Providing a base layer of rapid ferocity, the soundscape is joined by the urgent revs of Peter’s car as well as the nightmarish gasps of Charlie who desperately gasps for air in the back seat as her face becomes ever-more flushed of life. 

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Sounding more like a possessed creature than a human being, Charlie kicks against the door and flails in utter distress shortly before Aster cuts to Peter’s eager foot on the accelerator and the increasing speed dial. Plunging headfirst into the black vista of night, all that can be seen ahead of Peter is the glow that the headlights conservatively cast over the murky road, with the driver dividing his focus on the road and his struggling sister. 

 “Charlie!” he desperately shouts, attempting to tempt her back from the window she’s leaning out of to gain more air. Turning away from the corpse of a cow lying in the road, these words to Charlie end up being his last to his younger sister as her protruding head collides with a wooden post on the side of the road, decapitating her to the sound of some terrific foley; perhaps the twisting of a leek? 

Screeching to a halt in the middle of the road, Peter finds himself at the wheel with only his own grunting for audible company. Gone is the urgent drilling of the car engine, the non-diegetic drums and the screaming in the back seat. The situation is sorted, but not in the way that either character wished for, with the pain of Charlie’s anaphylactic shock immediately ceasing after the high-speed collision. 

Managing only the grunts of a caveman and several animalistic sniffs, Peter reacts to the tragedy with true authentic horror, still gripping the wheel as he stares into the blackness with utter shock. Taking his perspective, Aster shows him eager to check the rear view mirror, only to pull back in fear of what he might find. As long as he doesn’t see it, it might not be real, as he slowly starts the engine and edges away from the crime scene. 

It is in this final shot of the scene that lingers on Peter for over a minute that truly makes this scene a modern masterpiece of horror, with the unbearable silence juxtaposing terrifically with the noise and panic of the previous incident. Failing as a brother and a role model, Wolff’s Peter is unable to face up to the true terrors of his actions, like many others in real life would be, abandoning his responsibilities as if hoping it was merely a nightmare. 

Hereditary’s final act unfortunately is never able to reach the heights of this terrifying moment, though the film remains a touchstone of modern horror for welcoming a new focus on the psychological torment of terror, with this scene to thank.