The Cult as Family-Destroyer in Hereditary

Midsommar is obviously ripe for a double feature with last year’s Hereditary, in which Aster utilized “the perspective of the sacrificial lambs” to explore a family unknowingly manipulated by a demon-worshipping cult. Whereas The Wicker Man builds inexorably toward its sacrifice on the beach, Hereditary has an ending that might seem to come out of left field if you’re not wired into the esoteric hints of a cult on the first viewing.

Toni Colette’s histrionic matriarch, Annie, certainly isn’t. Yet in hindsight, the writing was on the wall all along: literally, with cryptic words like “satony” appearing on the walls of the life-size dollhouse she and her family inhabit. What Hereditary does is domesticate the usual cult scenario, seeding in a backstory about an evil grandmother who groomed her own children and grandchildren to be host bodies, or sacrifices of a sort, for a demon.

Whereas Dani is responsible for the death of her boyfriend, Annie is responsible for the death and/or possession of her whole family. Before it’s even happened, she tells a support group, “I just sometimes feel like it’s all ruined. And then I realize that I am to blame. Or not that I’m to blame, but I am blamed.”

It’s, well, hereditary. Annie’s inherited a legacy of madness from her mother without knowing the cause. The cult, in this case, is merely an externalization of destructive inner forces, operating beyond one’s ken or control. Taking a cue from the classroom scene in Halloween, Hereditary sketches this theme early on when it has students talking about how characters in the Greek tragedy Herakles are “pawns in a horrible, hopeless machine.”

Like Herakles, Annie refuses to look at all the signs that are being handed to her. She sends her daughter to the party where the chain of events leading to her nightmarish decapitation will occur. She also leads the love of her life straight to his death: her husband goes up in flames, just like Sergeant Howie. To say nothing of her own sawed-off head …

Then there’s her son, the young man destined to wear the crown of Paimon, one of the kings of hell. “Peter is in danger, and I started it,” Annie realizes. She started it just by giving birth to him, even though that’s something she never wanted to do. At the dinner table, she lashes out at him; in his bedroom, she sees him being devoured by ants like her daughter’s head. In the end, Peter stands heir to the same forces that destroyed his family. “Mo’ pain” is an anagram for Paimon.

Familiar Tropes, New Settings in Apostle and The Ritual

Type in one title or the other in your Netflix search bar and you’ll probably see Apostle and The Ritual pop up right next to each other. In recent years, the streaming giant has gotten in on the Wicker Man chase by distributing these two films, each of which transplants the familiar cult sacrifice story to a new location.

Apostle, starring Dan Stevens, began streaming last October. Stevens plays Thomas Richardson, a former Christian missionary who ventures to a remote island — off the coast of Wales, this time, instead of Scotland — to rescue his sister from a cult.

What sets Richardson apart from Sergeant Howie is that he’s lost his faith and he’s able to blend in better, even form some alliances, on the island. He goes there masquerading as an initiate, only to discover that the island’s fertility is sustained through blood sacrifice. This time, the cult members willingly offer up their own blood in jars. There’s no need for the lives of outsiders to be sacrificed … but that doesn’t mean people don’t still die in gruesome public “purification” rituals.

Filmmaker Gareth Evans (The Raid) already showed us one Jonestown-esque cult when he co-directed “Safe Haven,” a segment in the 2013 horror anthology V/H/S/2. In Apostle, he makes the actual deity that the cult worships more of a character than we’ve seen in other movies. She’s a decrepit goddess who the cult leaders keep subsisting in captivity. This kind of movie doesn’t often breed self-sacrifice on the part of its doomed cult victims, but that’s exactly what happens when Richardson becomes one with the grass and replaces said goddess as the island guardian.

Directed by David Bruckner, another alumnus of the V/H/S series, The Ritual began streaming on Netflix in February 2018. The movie follows four friends hiking the King’s Trail in Sweden, who decide to cut through the woods when one of them suffers an injury. It’s equal parts Blair Witch and Wicker Man, with the cult not showing up till later in the movie. As you might expect, there’s also a cabin in the woods, complete with a creepy statue in its attic, similar to the climactic treehouse statue in Hereditary.

Rafe Spall plays Luke, who is haunted by his failure, months before, to save the fifth friend in the group during a robbery. He’ll soon witness his last surviving friend sacrificed to the Jotunn, an elk-like god who bears the distinction of being the bastard son of Loki (the version from Norse mythology, not the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

Luke faces the choice of becoming a living sacrifice himself or bowing before the Jotunn, in which case he can join the ranks of the cult’s immortal members—some of whom cling to existence as barely sentient mummies. He elects choice “C”: to escape back to civilization. It’s more of a choice than Sergeant Howie ever got.

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