In its sense of poisoned family bloodlines, of the everyday invaded by unspeakable evil, of bonechilling terror you won’t be able to shake, Hereditary is a new horror landmark that puts a unique face on things that go bump in the night. To be clear, this award-caliber debut feature from writer-director Ari Aster is eons away from the torture porn and B-movie scares that litter the multiplex. The 31-year-old filmmaker, known for such potent short films as Munchausen and The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, approaches the supernatural like Jennifer Kent did in The Babadook and Robert Eggers did in The Witch: with an artist’s eye for what lies beneath.
Aster’s subject is the family. Annie Graham, played by the great Toni Collette at the top of her game, spends less time at home with her therapist husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and their two children – high-school stoner Peter (Alex Wolff) and the younger, cripplingly shy Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – than she does with her art. Annie makes miniatures, models of rooms and homes that seem more intricate than life. Her investment in recreating the house she lives in is scarily obsessive, an attempt at control she doesn’t have in life. Aster and his miraculously inventive cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski begin the film with a wide shot of this dollhouse and then move in and out with such intricacy that we can’t tell art from reality.
The feeling of a world out of balance pervades the film. Our equilibrium is skewed from the start as the Grahams cope with a death in the family. Annie’s mother, Ellen, had ruled with a matriarchal power that drew Charlie close to her but alienated her own daughter. Now the late woman’s grave has been desecrated and what are those totems made of animal parts that Charlie hides in her backyard treehouse? By the time another family tragedy strikes and Ellen’s friend, Joan (Ann Dowd), persuades Annie to attend a séance, we watch each sequence with dread, especially when Peter starts acting out in school and Dad seems helpless to intervene.
The movie builds like a gathering storm. You’ll be hearing the score by saxophonist Colin Stetson in your nightmares, where the visual effects of makeup-and-prosthetics master Steve Newburn also work their dark magic. Still, Hereditary achieves its tightest hold on us, not through gore but through the violence of the mind. It gives us real people to contemplate, not the cardboard cutouts hack directors use for cheap scares. Aster hints that family dysfunction (does Annie hate her children?) and a long history of mental instability can be more dangerous than any possession a demon can manage. The look on Peter’s face near the end – Wolff is just tremendous in the role – will make you jump out of your seat.
But it’s Collette, giving the performance of her career, who takes us inside Annie’s breakdown in flesh and spirit and shatters what’s left of our nerves. Her tour de force bristles with provocations that for sure will keep you up nights. But first you’ll scream your bloody head off.